LOWELL -- There used to be pats on the back, or pizza parties, but now it's prepaid credit cards and new-car lotteries. What's next in the effort to get students to go to class?
Lowell High School is offering seniors who maintain excellent attendance and gain acceptance to college or the military a free, $1,200 laptop computer at year's end.
''It makes students want to come to school more," said Buntha Sok, a 19-year-old who has returned to school after a year off that included running with a street gang.
Sok returned to school because he wants to be a police officer -- not for a free computer -- but he said the appeal is undeniable. ''I grew up in a poor family. I never had the chance to use a computer," he said. ''I always wanted a laptop."
David Conway, one of five house--masters at Lowell High School, said school administrators came up with the laptop idea after seeing daily attendance dip last year to 85 percent at this campus of 3,000 students. To avoid sanctions under regulations of the federal No Child Left Behind law, attendance must reach 95 percent.
''Attendance is a societal problem," Conway said. ''Nobody really has the answers. There didn't seem to be any innovative ideas. It seems as though we rely on the punitive part: detentions, suspensions, telling the parents."
Nationwide, schools are turning to incentives in the face of the federal No Child Left Behind education law that requires every school to report truancy figures. Attendance is a factor that helps determine whether schools go on the ''needs improvement" list, which can force them to let students transfer and lose some government funding.
At Trimble Tech High School in Fort Worth, Texas, attendance jumped nearly three percentage points last year to 94.7 percent after officials announced eligible students could win a 2001 Ford Mustang. It's one of several car giveaway programs at Fort Worth high schools.
In Kansas City, Mo., officials say incentives roughly doubled enrollment in summer school. Students who didn't miss a day received a prepaid Visa card worth $125.
The buzz about the laptops already has improved Lowell's attendance, Conway said. The daily rate so far this year is 91 percent. To qualify for a laptop, a student must not be absent more than eight days in all classes, reflecting a 96 percent attendance rate, and must be accepted into the military or a two- or four-year college.
Educators in Lowell also hope the laptops will help deserving students offset college expenses. This year, three state colleges are requiring for the first time that new students own a laptop. More state schools will adopt that rule next year. It will add about $1,200 to the total cost.
''We do have a lot of lower-middle-class students," Conway said. ''Their parents are scrambling on how to pay for college."
About 90 Lowell seniors would have qualified last year for the laptops. Conway expects at least 125 of this year's 775 seniors to make the cut.
About 10 percent of the laptops -- some of which are being donated by area colleges and businesses, and others paid for through fund-raising -- will be distributed to seniors in extenuating circumstances. Conway and others acknowledge that some kids miss classes because they must care for a sibling or earn money for their family.
Critics say incentives are not the best answer.
Alfie Kohn, a Massachusetts-based former teacher and author who lectures nationally on the dangers of rewards, says that when teachers are ''dangling goodies" in front of kids, the kids are less inspired.
''The intrinsic motivation to learn, read, or even show up tends to decline when kids are bribed to do what the adults want," he said.
Rather, Kohn said, children should be provided engaging courses and be given more choice about what they are learning.
Monty Neill, executive director of the Center for Fair & Open Testing in Cambridge, argues that schools are so focused on improving test scores, and punishing those who don't make the cut, that students are frustrated.
Programs that focus on independent learning have better long-term success, he said, citing the Boston Arts Academy and the two-dozen high schools comprising New York City's Performance Standards Consortium.
''Kids out of these schools go to college way beyond the demographic projections," he said.
But Ronald Ross, former superintendent of Mount Vernon City School District, a high-needs district just north of New York City, said incentives can be a practical tool to engage students.
In 2001, he gave a free bicycle and helmet to each student who read 50 books in the school year. By year's end, 160 kids qualified. Just 36 percent of Mount Vernon students met the state reading standards in 1999. Two years later, 74 percent did. ''If I hook him on reading and give him a bike, he's not going to forget how to read, is he?" Ross said.