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Baltimore students invest in their future

Amy Scott Oct 19, 2010
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Baltimore students invest in their future

Amy Scott Oct 19, 2010
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Kai Ryssdal: Tricky as it can be to reason with teenagers, most of them see the benefits of staying in school until they graduate. Those who do eventually wind up dropping out though, start showing signs of it as early as sixth grade.

So what if you got right down to it and paid those kids to keep coming to class? Cash incentives in and of themselves aren’t new. But a program in Baltimore has taken it one step further — letting kids play the markets.

From the Marketplace Education Desk at WYPR, Amy Scott reports.

Amy Scott: In Mr. Lewis’s science classroom at the Barclay School in Baltimore, an air conditioner hums mercifully in the corner, fighting the unseasonable heat. Posters cheerfully promote “Rocks and Minerals” and “The Atom.” But today’s lesson will be a little less scientific.

Renard Lewis: Has anybody ever heard of stocks before? Flip the lights on for me. Stocks, stocks, anybody ever heard of stocks?

The program is called Stocks in the Future. Over the course of the year, these sixth graders will get paid to go to school. Rather than pocket the money, they’ll invest it in stocks they help pick. When they graduate from high school and turn 18, the stock is theirs. Ten-year old Kayla Jackson says it sounds like a pretty good deal.

Kayla Jackson: I like it because it gives kids a chance to earn their own money, instead of trying to go out there and find a job, when it’s more dangerous now than it was back in the day.

It’s not much money. Students earn a dollar for every week of perfect attendance throughout middle school, more for good grades.

Lewis: They’re getting more than just money. They’re getting something that is a life skill.

Renard Lewis is well-suited to teach them. Before he became a teacher, he worked as a financial advisor at Raymond James. Today’s lesson: opportunity cost. The price of giving up one thing for something else. To explain, Mr. Lewis talks about the “sacrifices” some students made to study for a quiz.

Lewis: So, although I wanna play Playstation 3. Although I wanna watch SpongeBob. Oh, don’t act like you all don’t watch SpongeBob. Oh, you know you still watch SpongeBob. Although you wanna do those things, you know the most important thing is getting the best possible grade you could get on Mr. Lewis’s quiz, right?

These kids are fighting tough odds. By one count, more than half of public school students in Baltimore don’t earn a diploma. And the warning signs show up early. Studies have shown that sixth graders who miss a lot of class are much more likely to drop out.

Pat Bernstein founded Stocks in the Future with Johns Hopkins University. She says says students in the program attend more school and score higher on aptitude tests. She says the money isn’t just an incentive for a student to show up in class or study.

Bernstein: Almost more importantly, it gives her an excuse among her peers for doing things that she would like to do but could get pressured into not doing unless she had a reason. We give them that reason.

Incentives and excuses makes Garrett Duncan uncomfortable. He teaches education and African American studies at Washington University in St. Louis.

Garrett Duncan: They reinforce certain stereotypes about certain communities, poor and working class students, black and Latino students, that they need some kind of carrot in front of them to do what other students normally do.

Stocks can also be a hard sell these days. Teacher Jay Valentine says it was especially tough during the financial crisis.

Jay Valentine: I actually had a kid say, “Why are we even studying this because stocks are over?”

But when stocks recover, there’s a lesson in that, too.

Valentine: You talk to them about the ups and downs and try to give them this idea that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.

In Mr. Lewis’s class, the kids are getting the hang of opportunity cost. He asks what they might do instead of going to the movies.

Lewis: Give me some thoughts on what you could do with two hours of your time back, and $25. Yes?

Student: Go buy a movie and then get yourself some McDonald’s.

It’s hard to know if Stocks in the Future will actually change graduation rates. Out of the 200 students who’ve gone through the program and reached graduation age, only 28 have shown up to claim their portfolios so far. If this latest crop of students invests smartly, they could do pretty well. Years ago, some of Mr. Lewis’s students bought Netflix stock at $20 a share. It’s now trading at around $150.

In Baltimore, I’m Amy Scott for Marketplace.

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