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Lawrence Harmon

Paying kids to stay in school

By Lawrence Harmon
Globe Staff / January 12, 2010

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PUTTING COLD hard cash in the hands of students as an incentive to stay in school could go a long way toward solving Boston’s chronic dropout problem. It’s one way Mayor Thomas M. Menino could make good on his inaugural promise of “transformative progress’’ in Boston’s schools.

Each year, about 3,000 students graduate in Boston and roughly half that many drop out, according to a 2006 study by the Boston Private Industry Council. These dropouts are the feeder system for a division of about 12,000 young people ages 16 to 24 who roll around the city with no educational credentials and little potential beyond raising public costs for health care, housing, law enforcement, and social services. Each dropout will impose a net fiscal burden of $275,000 on taxpayers.

Paying kids to stay in school would require a lot of pluck on the part of public officials. The backlash could be severe. The proposal smacks of bribery, critics might contend. Or it would create a class of chronic moochers, not a future crop of college graduates. These are sober concerns. They deserve answers.

But many middle class youths already operate on a rewards system that is linked to school attendance and performance. It’s called allowance. And those young people who don’t receive a regular stipend at least have a decent chance of hitting up their parents for the price of a movie and McDonald’s. But ask those who live in Boston’s poorer neighborhoods if they get a regular allowance and they look at you blankly. Not surprisingly, they light up at the prospect of being paid to stay in school. More interesting is the amount they say would keep them at their desks - $80 to $100 a month. It’s identical to the average allowance for suburban 16-year-olds. About $20 a week of disposable income is what motivates most kids to do the right thing.

Forget the fantasy about the selfless poor kids who press money into the palms of their cash-strapped moms. “Every month I’d buy new sneakers,’’ said one 15-year-old who identified herself as a ninth grader from the Jeremiah Burke High School in Dorchester. Other teens were similarly acquisitive. But they had something more significant in common. They were all hanging around Downtown Crossing or riding the Orange Line subway during school hours. They are the city’s dropouts and future dropouts. But $80 per month might be just enough to offset the personal problems and lack of academic “fit’’ that so many students cite as reasons for dropping out.

Neil Sullivan, who heads the nonprofit Boston Private Industry Council, opposes paying kids to stay in school. He favors the creation of after-school jobs that help potential dropouts to develop “self-awareness’’ and “aspirations.’’ But Sullivan can only find jobs for about one-quarter of the youths who need them. And even if he could serve them all, the students at greatest risk of dropping out would probably benefit more from hitting the books than working after school.

There are about 18,000 high school students in Boston. Not all would need the stipend. Officials could target the lowest performing high schools with the highest dropout rates or they could cast a wider net. For example, a pilot program providing $80 monthly to 1,000 students during the academic year would run about $720,000. Paying 10,000 kids to stay in school would require $7.2 million, or about 1 percent of the school system’s budget. But significant savings could be realized by reducing the need for the six alternative schools and nine specialized programs under private contract that now focus on dropout prevention in Boston. Fewer dropouts would also mean less crime, vandalism, and costly social services.

On a visit last fall to the Globe, Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard said that his decision to pay students $50 a month to stay in school has dramatically lowered the dropout rate. He faced down his critics. So could Menino, who has promised that his administration would “experiment and take risks’’ in his fifth term. Or the mayor could simply appeal for funding to corporate philanthropists who subscribe to the philosophy of financial incentives. Either way, a stay-in-school stipend could pay off handsomely for both the city and its struggling students.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.

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