Students paid money for succeses at school


PHOENIX -- Kids at Garcia Elementary School get 10 cents just for showing up, and another dime for being on time.

The biggest payoff -- 50 cents -- comes if they let substitute teachers survive with their sanity.

But the children can spend their loot only at the south Phoenix school's mini-store, and they don't waste it on toys or trinkets.

They buy groceries for their families.

The best-sellers at the only in-school store of its kind in the metropolitan area: flour, sugar, salt and rice.

"I get to help out my mom," said 7-year-old Evelyn Rosales, who bought disposable diapers for her baby brother.

"We have a lot of families here who run out of food by the end of the month," said Rita Santa Maria, who helps out in the store.

All of Garcia's students are poor enough to qualify for free breakfasts and lunches from the federal government.

"Sometimes, there's little motivation to come to school, and sometimes even less to do their schoolwork," Ann Marie Kissel, the school's counselor for 10 years.

That is, until December, when the tiny store opened.

All of a sudden kids not only came to school regularly, but on time (20 cents), Ms. Kissel said.

They did their homework neatly (10 cents). They didn't get detention and weren't sent to the principal's office as often (10 cents for each feat).

"If we don't fight with nobody, they give us money," Evelyn said.

It's not bribery, Ms. Kissel said, as some have charged. The kids work for the money.

"They're being paid for doing their job, being a student," Ms. Kissel said. "I get paid to do my job. Why shouldn't they?"

Frank Serafini, a Garcia teacher for six years, answers that question by refusing to let his students participate in the program.

He said children should learn because they want to, not because they're getting paid.

"They should be learning for their own reasons," Mr. Serafini said.

He also worries whether parents will depend on their children's purchases too heavily and punish the youngsters who don't come through every week.

"If a father says, 'Earn enough money to buy diapers,' and the the student doesn't, imagine what could happen," Mr. Serafini said.

If it works, do it, said Miriam Muniz-Swicegood, an Arizona State University West education professor and expert on at-risk children.

The youngsters at Garcia, ages 5 to 13, are too young to appreciate education for its intrinsic value, Ms. Muniz-Swicegood said. They often need rewards they can hold onto.

"It is keeping them in school, off the streets and away from gangs," she said. "It's worth it."

As the children get older, they will value knowledge for knowledge's sake.

While some may scoff at that because their children don't need )) rewards to do well in school, the children at Garcia -- and those like them -- are different, she said.

They're dealing with more problems -- poverty, gangs, getting to school safely -- than just what's on their math work sheets.

"They give me Garcia money every time I do something well," Jose Verduzco, 7, said. "It's good because I get to buy food."

He crossed each item off his list as he carefully placed it in a red plastic shopping basket.

Jose bought soda, vegetable juice and canned goods, and shouted "Thank you!" to Ms. Kissel before dragging his bag back to class.

Ms. Kissel said teachers have seen a marked improvement in children's behavior -- better attendance, fewer discipline problems.

Some parents who previously didn't care whether their kids made it to school are pushing them out the front door on time, Ms. Kissel said.

"Now there's something in it for them if their kids come to school," said Steve Schrade of Fleming Foods Inc., one of the store's sponsors. "This is all stuff they would otherwise be spending their money on."

Anything that can't be bought in regular stores with food stamps -- laundry detergent, fabric softener, toilet paper, trash bags, diapers -- moves fast.

The store is based on a similar program in Cincinnati.

Students at Garcia are paid in scrip, and they put it in the bank -- a blue ledger kept by Ms. Kissel.

Before each shopping day, about every week and a half, they take home a price list of every item. Kids choose what to buy with their parents.

Back at the store, the kids write play checks, which tests their math skills, Ms. Kissel said.

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