This urban district devised a successful plan to drive up school attendance
Omar Ramos confesses he's a sucker for competition. Once he heard that staff at nearby Western Hills High School had convinced a business partner to donate a PT Cruiser as a prize for student attendance, he saw that his offering of Blockbuster gift certificates would no longer cut it. And yesterday's tact of phoning home to check alibis to put fear into students? Dead as a doornail in the face of this new motivation on the block.
So Ramos, principal of Trimble Tech High School in Fort Worth, begged his own school's business partners for a car, too. Construction firm Thomas S. Byrne anted $10,000 for a used copper-colored Ford Mustang with leather seats and a six-CD changer in the dash, which Ramos proudly presented to the winner on May 21. The race for attention was officially on.
Buoyed by the high schools' success, FWISD's School and Community Partnerships program sprang into expansion mode over the summer. Two more dealerships joined the parade, donating a Saturn and a Ford Ranger pick-up truck as drawing prizes among all students with perfect attendance at the 13 high schools.
But why should high schools get all the attention, wondered Janie Christie, the program's coordinator. Good attendance habits start early. Her team worked the phones, landing two Dell laptops as prizes for the 24 middle schools. And two $2,000 shopping sprees for bedroom furniture at Cargo Kids tempts the small fry at Fort Worth's 78 elementary schools.
Students arriving on campus this year were greeted with "Every Child in School Every Day" campaign posters detailing how they could make school "pay off" immediately.
Janie Christie encourages schools to establish their own attendance programs to supplement district-wide rewards. "There's no such thing as too many prizes," she says, adding that no one has branded the set-up a bribe. Nor does every school need to fall into lockstep with the others. For example, the district awards one chance in the drawing for six weeks of perfect attendance, but some schools extend weekly chances for individual prizes.
Bagging the Bucks
Principal Omar Ramos uses this formula for the Trimble Tech High School car drawing:
1 week in school with no tardy slips = 1 Bulldog buck
Placement on the A/B honor roll = 1 Bulldog buck
Placement on the all A's honor roll = 2 Bulldog bucks
Random bonus days (Ramos once picked spring break bookends-- wink, wink) award present students with a surprise buck, which can make up for a screw-up earlier in the week
Four Bulldog bucks = one chance in the drawing.
Of those vying for the Mustang last spring, a dozen had five chances; about 100 had four. Ramos' 1,600 students earned 16,000 Bulldog bucks that season. The school experienced a 1.8 percent boost in attendance from 2002-2003 to 2003-2004, taking it to 94.7 percent . After the first six-week period in the current school year, nearly one-third of the school population had clocked in perfect attendance, upping their chances for the additional wheels. As for achievement, Trimble Tech boasted the lowest high school failure rate on state tests this past year.
The prize bout is actually "round two" in Fort Worth's ongoing battle of getting butts in seats. When Texas' comptroller audited the district at the end of the millennium, it reported a 1.8 percent rise in dropout rates in just one year, while most peer districts in the state and region had held steady. The office recommended that the district get its act together from the inside and out.
According to state law, truant students and their parents can be charged in court for skipping classes. But these cases vie for docket space with everything else, and the school's boundaries stretch over seven precincts, "so it took three months for a kid to get to court and you've already lost them by then," says Delena Doyle, assistant director of student affairs.
Court's in Session
AFort Worth school board trustee asked the city to designate a municipal judge for student truancy cases, with the school system providing the building. By April 2001, School Attendance Court was in session.
"It's not about punishment, even though that's what the kids see," says Municipal Court 6 Judge Sharon Newman-Stanfield. "The laws are concerned with rehabilitation." Today, the turnaround on hearings is three weeks, and the district filed 1,000 fewer cases in the 2003-2004 school year than the previous one. Meanwhile, attendance has shot up and dropouts are down.
Truancy is considered a "gateway crime," Doyle notes. "If they're not in school, they're generally out consuming alcohol, using drugs or participating in other activities that aren't good for them, like burglarizing homes, teen-age pregnancy." The student message: There's a price to pay for not being productive.
How to Hook a Business
Corporations like Cargo Kids--a division of Fort Worth-based Pier 1 Imports--are eager to partner with schools when it comes to goals like raising attendance levels, points out Joy Rich, a philanthropy specialist with the retail giant. The corporate brass responded to the call for prizes in large part because it already had deep ties to Daggett Elementary. Here, employees participate in everything from pen pal programs to reading sessions, math game tutoring, a holiday adopt-a-child clothing outreach and even random gift basket donations for teachers.
"Our chairman's kids went to Fort Worth Public Schools," Rich says. "We meet with our schools all the time and ask, 'What do you need?' "
Fort Worth (Texas) Independent School District
No. of schools: 78 elementary, 24 middle, 13 high schools, plus 28 alternative schools
No. of teachers: 4,967
No. of students: 80,989
Ethnicity: 50.2% Hispanic, 29% black, 18.8% white, 1.8% Asian, 0.2% Native American
Per-pupil expenditure: $6,025
Dropout rate (2003-2004): 1.7%
Area Population: 585,122
Superintendent: Joe Ross, since July 2004
Julie Sturgeon is a freelance writer based in Greenwood, Ind.