According to Dwight D. Eisenhower Middle School principal John Mangrum, it's not uncommon for students to miss a few days of school during the 180-day school year, whether they're sick or have a family matter. However, concerns arise when students decide to skip class or stay home for unwarranted reasons.
To encourage attendance, the middle school partnered with Laurel's Tischer Acura dealership and Walmart to reward seventh-graders with a free bicycle if they kept perfect attendance or had no unexcused absences. On June 8, nearly half of the seventh-grade were rewarded for their attendance records this year.
"It's outstanding," Mangrum said. "It's a great opportunity that we had the chance to recognize our students for coming to school every day, following directions and doing what they're supposed to do. … Every kid, I believe, is a good kid. They just need, sometimes, that little push to get them over the hump."
Out of 382 students in the seventh grade, 166 qualified for the bikes and were recognized Thursday morning at the school. All bicycles and helmets were paid for by Tischer Acura, costing nearly $16,000.
Ron Dortch, president of the school's Parent Teacher Student Association, said, "the incentive really worked."
Last year, Dortch said, about 40 students throughout the entire school qualified for the bike giveaway.
During the contest, if students were sick, they were still eligible for a free bicycle, but had to bring a note from their doctor or parents for an excused absence as part of the school's policy.
This year, 96 girls and 70 boys were recognized for their efforts. About 20 bicycles and helmets were handed over to winners, with the remaining students receiving certificates to pick up their bicycles at Walmart on Russett Green.
Angely Garcia, 13, said she felt "great" about her accomplishment and excited to join her sisters on their bicycle rides; however, the contest was no easy feat.
"It was hard because some days I would be sick or I would be really tired and didn't feel comfortable coming to school," Angely said. "I think it helped my education because my grades were boosted and got higher."
Waking up early in the morning was also hard, said 13-year-old Anthony Aguilar, but worth it for a new bicycle.
"I'm happy. School is important and it made my mom and sister happy," Anthony said. "They wanted me to go to school for a better education."
"I'm so proud of him," added Veronica Aguilar, Anthony's mother. "They encouraged kids to do better and I think it's a very good idea."
Jean Johnson, marketing manager at Tischer Acura, said the students were introduced to the contest at the end of the 2015-2016 school year when they were in sixth grade. Johnson, dealership owner Donato "Danny" Sauro and general manager Bruce Breinig developed the idea a year prior as part of Honda Week, a national campaign that encourages dealerships to get involved in and give back to their communities. In addition to the school contest, Johnson said Tischer Acura also hosts a toy drive around the holidays for families in need.
"We feel that, in seventh grade, those kids are just so impressionable and can sway either way," Johnson said. "That's when they're getting that [idea of] skipping or staying home. So many of these kids at the end of the year sit through these ceremonies and watch other kids with straight A's get presidential awards, while they got C's and D's and went to school every day."
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Some kids have a harder time earning good grades, she said, so this contest was created to give them an attainable goal, something that was in their control.
"Kids aren't going to carry perfect attendance all year just to get a $25 gift certificate for something. We wanted to make it something exciting," Johnson said. "We didn't anticipate so many to do so well, but we have no problem fulfilling that at all."
Sauro, who has owned Tischer Acura since 2000, said his goal was to get kids interested and involved in learning to ensure they have a brighter future. Giving back to the community is part of the business world, added Breinig.
"From a gratification standpoint, you can't imagine the look in these kids' eyes when you hand them a bicycle and a helmet and all they had to do for it was go to school," Breinig said. "Going to school is the right thing to do, so we're trying to help them go down the right path."
Tischer Acura will continue the incentive for next year's seventh-grade class.
District 1 Board of Education member David Murray described the students' efforts as "phenomenal."
"To motivate the students and for them to stick with it all year long, it's so cool," Murray said. "It's unprecedented and I'm sure will lead to some additional learning when you have more kids in the classroom."