The $800 Diploma

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Twenty young people received checks in the mail last month from the Hammond, Indiana, school district simply for having been good students in high school. The district passed out the $800, no-strings-attached checks under a provision approved by the Indiana legislature in January. Districts receive $800 from the state for each graduate who receives an "academic honors diploma," and the new law says school officials can choose to pass that money on to the individual student.

"I think this is an opportunity to give young people an incentive and a payout for a job well done," says David Dickson, superintendent of the 14,500-student Hammond district.

Kathy Christie, an analyst for the Education Commission of the States, which tracks state policies, says the Indiana law is highly unusual, if not unprecedented. States tend to reward students financially in the form of college scholarships, not cash payouts. Georgia, for example, provides scholarships for high-achieving high school graduates to attend state postsecondary institutions.

The idea for the cash rewards came from R. Joseph Dixon, superintendent of the 3,100-student Frankfort district. He persuaded legislators to tweak a law passed in the spring of 1997 that awarded districts the extra cash when a student graduated with an academic-honors diploma.

Officials at the Indiana education department are aware of only two districts-Hammond and Frankfort-that have taken advantage of the new option to give the cash to students. Thirty-six of Frankfort's 1997 graduates have received checks, and forty-one high achievers from the class of 1998 will get their $800 in January. Because districts don't receive funding for the awards until at least seven months after most graduations, the money is delivered retroactively.

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

David Emmert, general counsel for the Indiana School Boards Association, says he has been getting phone calls from school systems that are mulling over the option. Many, he says, are conflicted. "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?"

-Mary Ann Zehr

Vol. 10, Issue 2, Pages 16-17

Published in Print: October 1, 1998, as The $800 Diploma
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