Ed. Extra: Earn to Learn?By Elaine McArdle
It’s a warm afternoon in May in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, and as the bell signals the end of the school day at the Smith Leadership Academy School, kids flood into the halls and burst through the doors outside.
They stop immediately, staring, and begin to point and whisper. Two white stretch limousines are parked at the front of the school building, each with a uniformed chauffeur standing solemnly beside it. The buzz grows louder: Is there a rapper visiting the classrooms? Maybe one of the Boston Celtics has come to get a tour of their new charter school. The kids crowd around the limos, and a few try to climb in.
“The limousines are for the students [from a special program] who made honor roll this semester,” she tells them. “Every student who got A’s and B’s on their report card will be driven home in a stretch limo today.”
The children yell and clap, jostling to look at their classmates who won this distinction. A girl steps forward, surprised but grinning, and steps into the limo. A boy proudly follows her, then another. The crowd applauds loudly.
“We want them to think school is cool,” explains Shakur, cofounder and executive director of a unique afterschool program for urban schools in Boston (including Smith Academy) that for more than a decade has racked up impressive results in turning around low-achieving students, in part, by using financial incentives. Building Inspiration to Fight Failure Paradigm Project: A Motivational Learning Skills Program (BIFF), launched 11 years ago by the Boston Learning Center, is a nine-week program that targets urban students from low- to moderate-income families who are intelligent but lack academic motivation, who would rather be “street smart” than “school smart.” Within just three weeks, it manages to significantly alter students’ effort in class and attitudes toward school, according to a study released last June authored by Sally Schwager, Ed.M.’76, C.A.S.’78, Ed.D.’92, Laura Hsin Feng, Ed.M.’09, and Marisa Whalen, Ed.M.’09. By the end of the program, there is breathtaking change in the group.