Ind. Law Allows Districts To Grant Top Students $800 Bonuses

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Twenty young people will receive a check in the mail this week from the Hammond, Ind., public schools simply for having been good students in high school.

The 14,500-student district is authorized to give out the $800 checks--no strings attached--by a new law the Indiana legislature passed in January.

The law says school officials can choose to give individual students the $800 that districts receive from the state annually for each graduate who receives an "academic honors diploma."

"I think this is an opportunity to give young people an incentive and a payout for a job well done," said David O. Dickson, the superintendent of the Hammond district.

The Indiana law is highly unusual, if not unprecedented, said Kathy Christie, a policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States in Denver, which tracks state policies on student incentives.

States typically only reward students financially in the form of college scholarships, she said. Georgia, for example, provides scholarships to high-achieving high school graduates regardless of income level to attend Georgia postsecondary institutions.

Superintendent's Vision

Officials at the Indiana education department are aware of only two districts--Hammond and Frankfort--that have taken advantage of the state's new option.

The vision for the law came from R. Joseph Dixon, the superintendent of the 3,100-student Frankfort district. In the spring of 1997, the Indiana legislature enacted a law that awarded districts $800 for every student who received an academic-honors diploma. To earn such a diploma, students must meet state criteria for taking and performing well in a rigorous four-year curriculum.

Mr. Dixon felt school systems should give the money to the students who had earned the special diplomas, but he had to persuade state legislators to change the law. When they did so earlier this year, the lawmakers gave districts the option of awarding the cash to individual students.

Under the new program, 36 of Frankfort's 1997 graduates received checks in 1998. Frankfort plans to award 41 high achievers from the class of 1998 with $800 in January of next year. Because districts don't receive funding for the awards until at least seven months after most graduations, the money will be delivered retroactively.

"We've said, 'You kids have earned it. We hope you spend the money wisely, but you've already earned it,'" Mr. Dixon said. He's hoping the awards will inspire more 9th graders to take academic-honors classes.

But one of the students who stands to benefit from the new law said money should not be the reason students take difficult classes.

The $800 windfall is nice, said Christopher H. Sikich, a valedictorian at one of Hammond's high schools in 1997 who is on the list to receive a check this week. But, he added, "the motivation [for students] should be to challenge themselves."

The Indiana School Boards Association has received phone calls from school systems mulling over the option, said David Emmert, the general counsel for the group.

"Schools struggle with, 'Should we reward the individual who won't be coming back to school or should we apply the money to existing students who may need it the most?'" he said.

Vol. 18, Issue 1, Page 30

Published in Print: September 9, 1998, as Ind. Law Allows Districts To Grant Top Students $800 Bonuses
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