You've heard of prodigies who are offered full rides and stipends to attend universities, offered big money in hopes they'll become a golden poster child for the success of the school; a face of intelligentsia, promise and scholarship.
That's not the case for the the 170-some students at Dohn Community High School, who, as of Monday, are getting paid just for showing up to class. A new incentive program rewards seniors who arrive on time every day, stay productive and out of trouble with $25 Visa cards every week, while underclassmen can earn $10. When a student receives a gift card, $5 will be put into a savings account to be paid out upon graduation. Dohn, which is a charter school in Walnut Hills, is comprised of mostly drop-out recovery students from other schools and other at-risk students from nearby communities.
When I first caught wind of the program, I was skeptical. Envision handing a high school student $25. When I was in high school, I would have taken that cash straight to the movies or the nearest mall, as I did with almost every paycheck from my first job. What I wouldn't have done is graciously accept it as a gateway to my future, or stashed it away wisely in an interest-earning savings account. I imagined these Visa cards being swiped at the nearest convenience store on gummy bears or Doritos, or, more seriously, drugs. Why willingly pay students to engage in unhealthy and nonconstructive behaviors?
It took me a while to remember that I grew up with a stable family life; my parents helped me buy my first car, and constantly wanted to know how and with whom I'd be spending my time outside of school. For longer than I deserved, my mom and dad helped me do my laundry and gushed when I received good grades.
That's simply not the case for most of the students at Dohn. "If you looked at an average suburban student at a school in Mason, or somewhere like Lakota East, it's not even a comparison," says Ramone Davenport, principal of Dohn.
Attendance and graduation rates at Dohn have been suffering over the last several years, despite other efforts to motivate kids to just show up, including pizza parties and out-of-uniform days. According to Dohn's Local Report Card from the Ohio Department of Education, the school has been designated as in an "Academic Emergency," the lowest and most dire designation. The graduation rate during the 2009-2010 school year was just 13.8 percent (according to Davenport, this only represents students who began and ended their high school careers at Dohn) compared with a state average graduation rate of 84.3 percent.
"I started speaking to parents about why their kids weren't coming to school, and it almost always came back to money," says Davenport. "It was because they couldn't buy lunch, or pay for bus fare, or laundry or clean clothes. So I decided that's what I would try to give them."
Because Dohn is a charter school, Davenport says, instituting the program was fairly simple; he didn't have to go through much of the red tape and approval that would have been required for a similar program at a public school. An anonymous donor caught wind of the program and gave Dohn a contribution. Easter Seals Work Resource Center, an organization that seeks to support the disabled and disadvantaged through the empowerment of employment, has also helped support the program, sponsoring gift cards for Dohn students that are already part of the Easter Seals Workforce Investment Program, which targets at-risk youths with severe truancy issues, like many of the students at Dohn. These particular students are also assigned case managers, career management and job training as part of Easter Seals' program.
During the first two days since this story was published Feb. 14, Dohn had already seen results. Davenport says that the attendance rate last Friday was at 68 percent. Monday's rate jumped up to 78 percent, and today's rate inched up to 83 percent.
Davenport isn't sure how the money is going to be spent, but he's willing to give it a try. "I've asked some students how they plan to spend the money, and I've been hearing positive things. Some say they're going to use it to pay student fees, buy lockers (Dohn charges $5 for a locker) or help bring food to the table and get their clothes washed."
Since announcing the plan, Dohn has received some serious criticism. "A lot of people are saying, 'Why would you pay a student to come to school when they're supposed to in the first place?' On the flip-side, they're just not coming."
Whether or not you approve of the plan, you have to give it to Dohn. It's well thought out — the student population at Dohn doesn't need pizza, they need stability, and some extra cash might be the way to get it. This program isn't something Dohn administrators think should be applied everywhere; they face a delicate situation and handle a unique populace.
Besides, the program is more of an experiment for Dohn than a permanent solution. Davenport is hopeful that when data improves, members of the community will want to offer donations in support. "I'm looking at this for the community, not for Dohn. It's a win-win for everyone if this works ... it will help keep kids off the streets and hanging around local businesses," says Davenport.