CLEARWATER — Michael Glasco was promised $500 in cold hard cash.
All he had to do was improve his reading level, raise his grade point average, work with a tutor, complete 12 online workshops and miss no more than eight days of school.
"I thought it could've been fake," the 18-year-old said. "It was kind of hard to believe."
But he stuck with it, and by summer, his motivation to study and his chemistry grade grew — along with his bank account.
Glasco is one of 23 Clearwater High students who last spring participated in Get Paid for Grades, a program created by Monica Eaton-Cardone, a Clearwater business owner, to motivate and support underachieving students by giving them cash incentives, paying for their tutors and donating to the school. The program expanded this fall to 171 committed students across four Pinellas County high schools: Clearwater, Dixie Hollins, Boca Ciega and Pinellas Park.
Here's how it works: the school identifies students who are underachieving. A testing company tests them to measure how far they are behind grade level. Once a low reading level is confirmed, the student is paired with a school-approved tutor to raise the student's grades and improve his or her reading by at least one level.
The student must also finish 12 online workshops relating to confidence, budgeting, job skills and postsecondary options like traditional college, technical schools and the military. Program coordinators also keep track of the student's attendance.
If the student finishes the program and meets all the requirements, they receive $500 to spend any way they choose. The tutor gets $500 and the school gets a $250 Microsoft gift certificate. If the student fails to meet just one requirement, no one gets anything from the deal.
The coordinators at Get Paid for Grades found that students who stuck with the program became more interested in getting help with tutors and coming to school.
"They became more interested in investing in themselves because you're showing them they have potential," said Eaton-Cardone.
She is the co-founder of Chargebacks911, a company that helps merchants discern whether disputed charges are legitimate or fraudulent. She would often hire students from down the street at Clearwater High for entry-level jobs such as data entry but found many lacked confidence and literacy skills.
"It became evident that this is a problem growing in leaps and bounds in (our) back yard," she said.
Eaton-Cardone set out to create a program to support and boost confidence of students who needed it the most. She started with a scholarship program in 2013 that, if completed, offered students either a $1,000 college scholarship or $500 in cash.
More than 80 students enrolled that spring semester, but only 10 completed the program. All 10 chose the scholarship.
But the term "scholarship" tended to keep away students who really needed the extra support. She thought of what she could do to get those kids on board. She also realized the school and the tutor would have to benefit to make the process work.
A revised program was created in January that did away with the scholarship but benefitted the student, tutor and school.
"Every kid loves cash," she said.
Of those 22 students who participated along with Glasco at Clearwater High, 16 received the money. The school held an awards ceremony over the summer for the students and their families.
Eaton-Cardone said her company funds the program. She expects to contribute more than $100,000 to student literacy this year in Pinellas County.
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The research is split on incentivizing children.
Matthew Springer, a professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University, also runs the National Center on Performance Initiatives. In his own experiment, he split up 300 middle school students who signed up for extra tutoring into three groups. He found no difference in outcomes between receiving no award and the potential to earn the $100 for attending tutoring sessions.
But the student group that was promised a certificate signed by the superintendent and mailed home to parents attended 42.5 percent more tutoring hours than those in the other groups.
"We have to ask, 'Is a financial incentive the best incentive to offer students?' And it might not be the case," he said. "Students might be motivated by other things besides pay."
The Hamilton Project, a policy think tank, published a brief in 2011 that compiled student incentive studies from urban schools in Dallas, Houston, New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C. It found that students who are incentivized for input, or effort, made improvements; that incentives don't necessarily destroy a natural love of learning (researchers saw no difference in enthusiasm between those who were incentivized and those who were not); and incentives can have positive long-term effects after the incentive is taken away.
Get Paid for Grades is developing a formal measurement that will track the progress of students who received the award through graduation.
Glasco, the student who completed the program, spent his award money on school clothes and supplies. He plans to enroll in an online college and study gunsmithing.
"It was very inspiring," he said of the program. "It kind of (gave) me an outlook on things you really don't think of. … And why you should apply yourself to do certain things in life."
Contact Colleen Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.