WESTLAND, Mich. — Brandon Allen is determined to make sure senioritis doesn’t hit during his last year at John Glenn High School in Westland. So he has signed a contract that will pay him $200 per semester if he substantially improves his grades.
“I heard that senioritis is a real thing. I figured that if I signed up for this program, it would keep me on track,” said Brandon of Westland.
About 400 students at the nearly 1,800-student school have signed such contracts, modeled after a smaller program at nearby Wayne Memorial High School. Both schools are in the Wayne-Westland Community Schools district.
The new program, called Champions of John Glenn, is funded primarily by a $50,000 donation from local businessman Glenn Shaw and his family. Shaw, who graduated from Wayne Memorial in 1961, lives in Canton, but Westland is still in his heart.
“I just love this community. … We just know kids are going to do so much better,” he said.
In addition to being able to earn $400 in a school year, the student with the highest percentage increase in his or her grade-point average will receive a one-year scholarship to the Wayne County Community College District or Schoolcraft College. Students already having a top grade of 4.0 can earn the money by setting different goals: organizing an event, taking a college entrance exam, reading a book or writing a paper.
Nearly all of the teachers at the school — as well as other staff members such as custodians and the police liaison officer — have signed on to become mentors. So has the district superintendent.
Some teachers have taken on entire classes of students.
School psychologist Lou Przybylski said paying kids may seem like a dissonant concept to some or a form of bribery to others. But the offer to pay students “becomes a carrot that attracts their interest,” he said.
“Once we get their interest, there’s a tendency to work much harder toward the goal,” he said.
At Wayne Memorial, about 25% of the students who enroll in the program meet their goal. Another 65% improve their grades, Wayne-Westland Superintendent Michele Harmala said.
Since the program started, ACT composite scores have increased from 17.2 to 18.8, out of a top score of 36.
“The building culture has changed from one of apathy” to one that celebrates academic achievement, said Sean Galvin, the program’s executive director.
The Wayne Memorial program, called Champions of Wayne, began during the 2008-09 school year with about 30 students. It now helps pay incentives for about 125 students a year, with funding from two local businessmen, Richard Helppie and Jeff Styers, both graduates of the school.
Harmala, a lifelong educator, is already meeting regularly with the student she mentors. As superintendent, she has little day-to-day interaction with kids.
“But my passion … is the success of kids,” Harmala said. “This gives me an opportunity to give back … and help a student in a closer way to succeed.
Przybylski, who is running the program along with assistant principal Kim Cieszynski, said the goal is to improve academic performance, as well as build good study habits and skills. Each mentor “becomes sponsor, coach, adviser, advocate and teacher.”
“A school semester is 90 days and if you change your pattern of study skills for 90 days, you can establish a sustainable habit,” he said.
Students are expected to set a goal that they’ll increase their grade point average by half a grade point over the course of the semester. For Brandon, that means improving from a 3.5 GPA to a 4.0 GPA. It also means getting all A’s in most classes, and B’s in advanced placement classes that carry more weight.
His mentor is marketing teacher Beth Johnson.
“She’s like the little angel on the shoulder that kind of lets me know, ‘don’t forget to do this, stay on track, you’re doing good.’ ”
Having that extra adult pushing you is important, he said.
“If you don’t have somebody in your background or someone to push you forward, or give you that needed boost, it’s kind of hard to stay focused. A lot of people aren’t self-motivated.”
Not every student is motivated by the money. Przybylski told of a football player who hesitated to sign up for the program — until given the option of donating the money he earned through improved grades to his favorite charity. He also told of a parent who wept at a parent-teacher conference this week because her son is doing better than ever since he signed up for the program.
Meanwhile, the adults who become mentors are also making a big commitment.
Przybylski said he felt almost guilty standing in front of teachers at the beginning of the school year and asking them to do more work.
“Even though they’re overburdened by state and federally mandated testing … the core of their being is to be a teacher and to be a teacher is to help people, to help students.”
Follow Lori Higgins on Twitter @LoriAHiggins