They don't call it bribery. They call it encouragement.
Students at two Baltimore high schools were largely supportive yesterday of a plan to pay them as much as $110 for improving their scores on state graduation exams.
"Students are going to bust their tails to pass a test if they get money," said Renieka Arnold, a 17-year-old senior at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School in Northeast Baltimore. "For the people who couldn't pass the test, they'd pass it" with the money incentive.
The school system will spend more than $935,000 on the program, part of a $6.3 million plan to help students struggling to pass Maryland's High School Assessments. The city schools' chief, Andres Alonso, also wants to pay students to help tutor others.
For Renieka, who plans to study forensic science starting this fall at the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania, failure is not an option. But she said students, like her, who already are succeeding academically need encouragement, too.
"If they pass the test," she said, "they should get more money."
Devon Thompson, 16, took a lighter view. "You can mark me down for two, because I want $220," he said, laughing. Then, referring to Benjamin Franklin's portrait on the $100 bill, he added, "You can put me in there for a Benny."
Some students at Mergenthaler said the payments would help them feel motivated. "I'd pass tests all day, and I'd go to classes," said Ashley Branch, a 17-year-old senior.
Caira Byrd, 14, who wants to be a singer and own a hair salon, said students would naturally try harder "if they'll earn money" by doing so, especially if the result is higher academic achievement.
"I'm not saying people would do anything for money," Byrd said, "but when it comes to grades, they probably would do better."
The immediate reaction of Ardis Fuller III to the news that money might be dished out was not positive.
"It's wrong," said Ardis, a 14-year-old Mergenthaler student. "It's scamming."
After thinking about it, though, Ardis said the proposed cash incentives would "probably" be effective in raising students' test scores, his own included.
His friend Cortez Colclough, also 14, said receiving handouts for doing schoolwork "would be like having a job."
At the wheel of a large sport utility vehicle, Vonda Bolden was dropping off her son, Marshall Hill, 16, at Mergenthaler. She said the proposal to distribute cash would be "a great incentive" for students such as Marshall.
"I think that would push them a little more to do well," she said, before rushing off to deposit her 11-year-old daughter, Victoria, at another school.
Sean Conner, 17, said many students do not attend school precisely because they are working elsewhere to earn cash. "They lose money if they go to school," he said.
The possibility of making as much as $110 under the program is "better than nothing," said Sean, who is studying to be a carpenter. They money would also serve to "knock down your class dues," he went on, referring to the approximately $640 that he said students at Mergenthaler must come up with during their high school years to pay for field trips, proms and other extracurricular activities.
Sean said he was still in the 11th grade after failing first grade. "But I do all my work," he said. "Sometimes I get into trouble, but I do all my work."
At Doris M. Johnson High School, Alexis McDougal, 16, said she did not require an immediate financial incentive to do well in school. She was thinking more long-term.
"I don't need money to complete my goals," she said, alluding to her desire to be both a doctor and a designer of wedding dresses. "I'll do what I need to do. I don't want to end up on the street."
And yet Alishia Wall, another 16-year-old at the Lake Clifton campus, had no doubt that extra cash would do the trick for her more lackluster classmates.
"It'll help them," she said. "Students like money."