Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2007

Schools embrace incentives to motivate students

Students, educators say rewarding academic success can foster long-term achievement

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The pep rallies mean a lot. So do the one-on-one lunches with a favorite teacher. Even a slice of pizza can make a difference for some students trying to make the grade.

Schools are embracing age-old practices to motivate students, and administrators in Montgomery County say the return is worth the investment.

‘‘Kids that do the right thing every day tend to not get the recognition or adult attention that they really deserve,” said Brian Eichenlaub, signature coordinator at Paint Branch High School.

James Hubert Blake High School holds pep rallies for top students or those with perfect attendance, said Hector Morales Jr., a special education teacher and coordinator of the school’s Renaissance program, a national educational enrichment initiative.

After a year of incentives implemented under the Renaissance program, Morales has seen some results, noting that the number of students on the Blake honor roll rose from 675 in the fourth quarter of last year to 750 in this year’s first quarter. About 960 students had a grade-point average of 3.0 in the first quarter, Morales said, compared to 844 in last year’s fourth quarter.

Morales also invites students who may have just missed the top student benchmarks to the rallies.

‘‘They might give the impression they are not interested, but they want to be recognized,” Morales said. He gets similar sentiments from Blake’s straight-A students honored each quarter with a dinner sponsored by local businesses.

‘‘It was nice to know that we can get recognized for something we did in school,” said Stephanie Shorten, a 17-year-old senior at Blake who attended her first straight-A dinner last month accompanied by her parents.

While Shorten said getting into college motivates her to get good grades, rewards like the dinner are a bonus. They also have motivated her friends to do better academically, she said.

But some say those kinds of incentives may not work for every student. Instead, they emphasize an approach that recognizes and supports hard work throughout the learning process.

‘‘You could have kids who put input into their work” but don’t get the high grade required for the reward, said Robbye Fox, marketing director and leader at Parent Encouragement Program, a Kensington-based nonprofit that offers classes and workshops for parents and teachers working with young children and teens.

‘‘They become more discouraged because they don’t get the prize at the end of the rainbow,” Fox said. ‘‘The effort they’re putting in is what you want to recognize.”

Instead of a reward, Fox says encouragement is needed regularly. ‘‘That means catching them being good,” she said, providing praise even on individual homework assignments.

At one area elementary school, Roscoe R. Nix in Silver Spring, the leadership team decided motivation should largely come from within each student. The school, which houses kindergartners through second-graders, has decided not to have honor rolls and awards assemblies.

‘‘We try not to do too many tangible things because we want to instill an inner desire,” Principal Annette Ffolkes said.

But Nix allows teachers to eat lunch with students they select and students can also read to administrators when they pass reading levels, Ffolkes said. The school hangs a ‘‘class of the month” photo.

Around report card time, teachers and staff encourage students to get ‘‘threes and fours,” with a four being the highest grade. But motivating the youngest students is not difficult, Ffolkes said. ‘‘At this age, they are very eager to please the adults.”

Springbrook High School has a similar philosophy about rewarding students. ‘‘We’re not in the business of dangling carrots,” said Nicole Brown, the school’s assistant principal.

Instead, Brown views Springbrook’s various activities as acknowledgement of students’ achievement and parents’ support. Parents are invited to quarterly honor roll breakfasts and the end-of-the-year scholars’ banquet, Brown said. Straight-A students also receive a pass for free admission to Springbrook events.

Brown always makes a point at the honor roll breakfasts to acknowledge first-time attendees. They may not always want the attention, she said, but Brown believes they deserve it. ‘‘That’s a big deal,” she said.

Paint Branch students lobby teachers and staff to be named ‘‘Panther of the Month,” an honor bestowed on only one student in each grade for leadership and service. The winners have their names displayed on the school’s sign, Eichenlaub said.

Even the simplest acknowledgement is important, Eichenlaub said. When he taught in middle school, his students teased him for putting stickers on returned tests — but they complained if he forgot.

‘‘They truly do appreciate it,” Eichenlaub said.

Staff Writers Fred Lewis and Jim Brocker contributed to this report.