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Chelsea youths find school does pay off

Perfect attendance yields cash rewards

CHELSEA -- The high school here will try a new way this fall to make students show up for school: Pay them.

Under a privately funded program, students will get up to $125 a year for perfect attendance all year, as long as they graduate. They have the chance to get up to $500 for a four-year string of zero absences.

Educators across the state praised Chelsea for its boldness, but said they worry about the message the 1,430-student school is sending by paying students for something they should do anyway. By law, students must stay in school until they are 16.

In neighboring Revere, officials considered giving $10 to high school students to attend Saturday school. But Superintendent Paul Dakin said the recordkeeping problems and philosophical questions doomed the idea.

''I will be interested to see what kind of results they get from it," Dakin said. ''But it tears at the heart of my educational being to know that schools are here to . . . teach kids, to stimulate them on to college, to prepare them for their future lives, and we've got to pay them to do that?"

Some Chelsea students and at least one parent see nothing awry.

''As a parent, I'd do anything to get him to school every day," said Wanda Pantoja, mother of an incoming freshman, Max Medina, and a senior, Lexxanna Lee Medina. ''Sometimes kids nowadays, they're into their music, their video games. It's hard. I think it's a great idea."

Her son, Max, 15, agreed. ''I'm broke, so I need the money," he said.

''For $100, I'll try," said Arnold Hernandez, 14, an incoming ninth-grader at Chelsea High. ''It'll be like a bonus. You go to school, you get an education, you get a hundred bucks."

Chelsea school officials said they enacted the policy to boost attendance, which they believe will ultimately raise achievement. The 5,300-student system is no stranger to innovation. Sixteen years ago, in dire financial and academic straits, it became the nation's first public school system to be run by a private university, Boston University.

Seeking to raise attendance overall, the district gives free books to children with perfect attendance in grades 1-4 and will expand that to grades 5-8 this fall.

But officials wanted something flashier for Chelsea High. Students there miss an average of 12 1/2 days a year, slightly higher than the state average, state figures show. School Committee member Morrie Seigal floated the idea of the money incentive to his colleagues, and the BU Management Team, which sets policy for the district, approved it last month.

The money will come from an initial $5,000 in private donations, which the school system soon will begin raising.

Guy Santagate, chairman of the BU team, said the high school's previous attendance policy was too punitive. Students failed a course if they had more than five unexcused absences, but the rule did little to keep youths in school, he said. He likens the cash-for-attendance policy to scholarships for stellar performance.

The new rule, though, is tough. Students who are sick or miss school because of a death in the family will be counted as absent.

''It'll be recognition for those who do show up," Santagate said. ''It's risky, but it's worth doing."

Other districts across the country have tried similar tactics. School systems in Missouri and Nebraska have awarded gift cards or cash for good grades, attendance, or a clean disciplinary record.

Douglas Sears, dean of BU's School of Education, understands Chelsea's need to do something drastic to keep youths in class. ''I do have some questions about the message," said Sears, who served as superintendent in Chelsea for five years. ''And yet . . . if you're not there, you're not going to learn, so you have to find ways to get young people into the classrooms."

Anand Vaishnav can be reached at vaishnav@globe.com.

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