HOLIDAY — Seventh-grader Michael Rice should have been at lunch with his friends.
Instead, he sat quietly in the multipurpose classroom at Paul R. Smith Middle, poring over a story about a dog, and writing sentences about how the tale related to his own life.
The assignment had been due earlier in the day, but Michael, 13, hadn't gotten it done on time. So his teacher "zapped" him.
Paul R. Smith Middle launched its Zeroes Aren't Permitted (ZAP) program this year to cut down on missed homework and incomplete class work.
"We have a higher number of students who just don't do homework, and we have quite a few who decide they just don't want to do their assignments," principal Chris Dunning explained. "It's not stuff that is busy work. They need to know the material."
Rather than just giving students a failing mark and moving on, teachers now send students who haven't done their work to the ZAP room, where they can get it done under the supervision of teacher Katie Holley. Though left to teacher discretion, the students generally get reduced credit for the assignment than if they had submitted it on time.
Still, Dunning said, it's better than getting a zero.
He likes to illustrate the point to students with a simple math problem. If you make two 80s and then skip an assignment, your average would be 53 — an F. Even if you earn 50 points on that third assignment, your average rises to 70 — a C.
Most important, Dunning stressed, the students are getting a chance to learn the materials, which is what school is all about.
Though not his choice to be "zapped" with the pink paper that teachers give out, Michael said he was fine with going there.
"It's quiet, and it's easier to work. There are no distractions," unlike life outside school, he said. "When you're at home, you don't really want to do anything. You want to go and play with your friends."
Students sent to ZAP get to eat whatever lunch the school provides, which on Thursday was a chicken sandwich and white milk. No choices here. If they don't complete the work, they get one last opportunity in after-school ZAP, with parent permission and a bus ride home paid for with Title I funds.
The goal, Dunning said, is to get students to no longer need ZAP. In reality, though, many students want to come.
Seventh-grader Alyssa Basile, 13, for instance, zapped herself on Thursday. She was working on a paper about the Titanic, and she simply wanted to finish the work without being bothered.
Getting the pink slip, she said, "feels like you're in trouble."
Every student gathered around one table in the cafeteria said he had been sent to ZAP at least once. They said it has benefits.
"It helps me get my work done," said seventh-grader Alexander Harper, 12.
"I don't want to get zapped ever again, though," added Elijah Saunders, 13, another seventh-grader. "I have other stuff to do. I want to hang out with my friends."
Teachers said the initiative is making a difference.
"I'm seeing a much higher turn-in rate for assignments," said Chris Alas, an eighth-grade math teacher. "I like it."
Alas taught many of the same students he has this year while they were in seventh grade. Even among the repeat offenders, he said, "I am getting more work out of them than I did last year."
Over time, the school wants to see an increase in completed work, along with a decrease in referrals and absences, all as a path toward improved performance on academic standards.
That's what other schools that have adopted a ZAP program have seen.
John Glenn High School in Bay City, Mich., is one school that Paul R. Smith Middle modeled its program after. Principal Tony Bacigalupo said his school, which uses ZAP for ninth-graders, has seen its freshman failure rate plummet since implementing ZAP three years ago.
Before the program, for instance, the freshman class of 250 would have about 40 fail Algebra I, he said. Afterward, the number is closer to four.
As students progress, Bacigalupo added, they have proven more likely to get their work done and focus on learning. "It's really been effective," he said.
Bacigalupo has heard some argue that kids should learn hard lessons of failure by getting zeroes and living with it. He doesn't buy that logic.
"Sometimes life happens," he said. "At the end of the day, the learning is what is important. That's what we want the students to understand."
Paul R. Smith Middle sixth-grader Danielle Nieto, 11, zapped for the fourth time this year, said she got the message.
"ZAP is good for students," she said. "It teaches me I should get my work done and get it in on time."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.