RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
We're going to hear now about a different strategy that's working. A school can have good teachers, new books, computers, but none of that matters if the kids don't show up. David Kestenbaum with our Planet Money team spent a day with one middle school principal in New York, who's been trying to boost attendance by borrowing some tools from economics.
DAVID KESTENBAUM, BYLINE: There really is only one time to sit down and interview a principal if you don't want there to be any distractions. That's before school starts.
SHAWN RUX: Right now the time is 5:58 A.M.
KESTENBAUM: What time did you get up?
RUX: Four o'clock A.M.
KESTENBAUM: Mr. Rux, as everyone calls him. His first name is Shawn. Mr. Rux took over this school in Queens last year. And at the time there were 50 or 60 kids absent every day. And you can understand why they stayed away. The school was chaos.
RUX: There was 22 teachers that had quit. The entire office staff had quit. There were 280 suspensions the previous year.
KESTENBAUM: You know how schools hand out letter grades? In New York schools also receive letter grades from the Department of Education. And this school, it got an F.
RUX: It was in the lowest three percent of all schools in New York City. So it was just in a bad place.
KESTENBAUM: So Mr. Rux got to work. And some of the things he did were borrowed from economics. He created incentives for kids to come to school. Incentives that were more apparent to middle school kids than just in 20 years you'll have a better life. He handed out raffle tickets to anyone who showed up to school on time. One of the prizes was an Xbox.
And he threw in an element of randomness. The first kids in line when the doors opened might get 20 tickets. The result? Kids showed up early. How far was the line outside?
RUX: It was more like a crowd, like, you know, get out of my way. I'm trying to get into school. So it was nice.
KESTENBAUM: Mr. Rux also created his own currency. Called Rux bucks. Teachers hand them out as rewards for good behavior. And they can be traded in for school supplies, or special lunches. I met one sixth grader, Wander Rodriguez. He had a whole wad of them. How many do you have?
WANDER RODRIGUEZ: Like more than 130 Rux bux.
KESTENBAUM: Wander's goal is to save up 5,000 Rux bucks. That will get him a personal shopping spree with Mr Rux.
RUX: Good morning. Hola. Come estas?
KESTENBAUM: At 7:30 in the morning Mr Rux is doing what he always does - saying hello to the students as they arrive. Lots of hellos.
RUX: Good morning sir. You're getting a mustache, man.
KESTENBAUM: And this, when you think about it, is another incentive. It's not as concrete as an Xbox but maybe more powerful. The message that someone, not just anyone, the principal, cares that you've showed up. Here's Wander.
RODRIGUEZ: I like this school because they treat me like home. They treat me nice. They always give me stuff. They always say hi, how you doing. They always say hi in the mornings.
KESTENBAUM: The school went from an F to a C. And attendance got better - 86 percent, 87 percent, 90 percent, even higher. One day earlier this year, it hit 95 percent. And then, something you've probably heard about happened - Hurricane Sandy. Mr. Rux's school is in far Rockaway, Queens, one of the worst hit areas.
Mr. Rux makes a point of not talking about his own misfortunes, but everybody knows where he lives. And, well, here's his story.
RUX: Let's see. So my car is gone. Pretty much everything that was on the first floor. All of - I like shoes. I like shoes and sneakers, and so, I'll just say they are done. They were all downstairs.
KESTENBAUM: How many pairs?
RUX: I can't tell you that.
KESTENBAUM: Come on.
RUX: A lot of shoes and sneakers. A lot.
KESTENBAUM: More than 20 pairs?
KESTENBAUM: More than 30?
KESTENBAUM: More than 40?
RUX: Do we got to keep going?
KESTENBAUM: When I visited last week, Mr. Rux's goal was to get attendance back to 90 percent. The final numbers are tallied around noon. And because Mr. Rux is usually running around the building, his attendance team - he has a team - sends the numbers to him as a text message. At 12:30 Mr. Rux is in his office, and it arrives.
RUX: So the text is here. The text says, hmm: Good day, Mr. Rux. We have 44 students absent, 89.2 percent.
KESTENBAUM: To most people, 89.2 is pretty close to 90 percent. But as you learn in math class, if you're paying attention, 89.2 if you round it, it rounds down to 89 percent. And for Mr. Rux, that is not enough. The point of goals is to meet them. The storm has been tough on everyone, he says, but that's no excuse. You've got to be in school. David Kestenbaum, NPR News.
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MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
He created incentives that 11-year-olds could relate to. (Somehow, "Come to school and you'll be better off in 20 years," just wasn't working.)
Shawn Rux took over as principal of MS 53, a New York City middle school, last year. At the time, 50 or 60 kids were absent every day. You could understand why they stayed away: The school was chaos.
Twenty-two teachers had quit, the entire office staff had quit, and hundreds of kids had been suspended. The school was given a grade of F from the city's department of education.
"It was in a bad place," Rux says.
Rux decided he needed to create incentives for kids to come to school. Incentives that were more obvious to middle-school kids than, "If you come to school you'll be better off 20 years from now."
He handed out raffle tickets to anyone who showed up to school on time. One of the prizes was an Xbox. And he threw in an element of randomness: The first kids in line when the doors opened might get 20 tickets.
It worked. Kids started showing up early.
"It was ... like, 'Get out of my way, I'm trying to get into school,' " Rux says. "It was nice."
Rux also created his own currency. He called it Rux Bux. Teachers hand them out when kids are well behaved. They can be traded in for school supplies, or special lunches. A sixth-grader named Wander Rodriguez is trying to save up 5,000 Rux Bux — enough for a personal shopping spree with Rux.
The principal also stands outside school every morning, greeting the students as they show up. This recognition is another, subtler incentive to come to school.
"I like this school," Wander Rodriguez says. "They treat me like home, they treat me nice, they always give me stuff. ... They always say 'hi' in the mornings."
The school went from an F to a C. Daily attendance went up to over 90 percent. Then the hurricane hit.
The school is in Far Rockaway, Queens — one of the areas hardest hit by the storm. Some kids' homes were destroyed. One student who stayed at home through the storm told a teacher, "My apartment complex was in the middle of the ocean." Rux's car was destroyed. The first floor of his house was flooded.
After the storm, after school started up again, Rux's goal was to get attendance back to 90 percent. Every day, his staff texts him the attendance numbers. The day I visited last week, 89.2 percent of students attended school. Close, but not close enough for Rux.
The storm has been tough on everyone, he says. But that's no excuse. Kids have to be in school.