January 01, 2003 1 min read

Trading Up

Success is in the cards for Betty Harshaw’s students.

At elementary schools in Wildwood, New Jersey, Pokemon is passé. Instead, kids scramble to obtain trading cards featuring characters a little closer to home: local high school students who excel in class.

Betty Harshaw, a part-time phys ed and driving instructor at Wildwood High School and public relations coordinator for her 1,000-student district, started the fad in 1999. Each year, she and other educators choose 30 to 40 Wildwood High juniors and seniors to appear on glossy trading cards that feature each student’s color photo on one side and personal “stats,” such as hobbies and extracurricular activities, on the other. To qualify, the high schoolers must maintain a 2.5 grade-point average and sign a pledge to remain drug-and alcohol-free and involved in their communities.

After the cards are designed and printed by a local camera shop, they’re distributed to teachers at the area’s three elementary schools. The teachers, in turn, hand them out to kids as rewards for positive behavior like good attendance, high grades, or being named student of the month. Once students collect five different cards, they are treated to lunch at Pizza Hut with a police officer and the all-star high schooler of their choice.

The program benefits both high school and elementary students, Harshaw explains. “A lot of the time, it’s the negative things [in schools] that get emphasized,” she says. “The trading cards program puts pressure on the older kids to be role models. They, in turn, encourage the younger ones.”

Andy DeLong, 17, who’s been featured on a card for the past two years, says he enjoys the attention: “I’m in a small town. To have little kids recognize you, you feel like you’re famous. Once you get used to it, you kind of welcome it.” DeLong says he’s had fans approach him on the street to tell him they like his card.

Last year, teachers passed out about 2,600 cards, and more than 130 students earned the pizza lunch. And it seems that Wildwood is not the only district interested in making a game out of achievement. Harshaw, who got the idea for her program at a school board convention, has received e-mails requesting advice on starting similar programs everywhere from Alaska to Belgium.

—Leah Kerkman