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Attendance incentives steer students to classroom

By GREG HAMILTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 4, 2000


It wasn't long after Amanda Lewis got her shiny new, and absolutely free, Camaro that the carping began.

The complaining was minor compared to the amount of praise for this unique idea by local merchants to boost Citrus County school attendance. But the whispers were there nonetheless.

Why, the complaint goes, are they rewarding kids for doing what they're supposed to be doing, which is going to school?

Frankly, I'm amazed by people who always focus on the dark clouds near the rainbow, who look for the blurred brush stroke on the Mona Lisa. They must have had really bad childhoods or a chronic case of hemorrhoids.

Anyway, the grumblers have completely missed the point of the laudable initiative by Jewel and Steve Lamb, king and queen of the Crystal Motor Car Co. empire. Is it really that hard to accept that maybe, just maybe, folks can do a good deed because it's the right thing to do?

Citrus County has been good to the Lambs, and they have returned the favor through numerous donations to community causes.

The latest is the car giveaway, an idea spawned at a Rotary meeting when Jewel Lamb heard Citrus High School principal Gary Foltz speak about the importance of attendance on how the state now grades each school. Others in the audience bemoaned the situation; the Lambs did something about it.

The result is a unique event in which teens at the county's three high schools, plus the Withlacoochee Technical Institute and the CREST school, all became eligible to win a new Dodge Dakota pickup truck or Chevrolet Camaro. All they had to do was make a yearlong effort to get to school every day.

Should they be doing that anyway? Of course.

But if you are now or have ever been the parent of a teenager, you know that there are mornings when it's pure torture to get the kids out of bed and out the door. The litany of excuses they concoct that early in the morning is remarkable.

This year, however, there was another reason to wake up: Get to school and you increase your chances at a new car or truck or at least the cash prizes given out each marking period. And, believe me, the kids have noticed the extra incentives this year.

Is it bribery? Sure. But it also helped get more kids to school where, who knows, maybe they actually learned something.

School district figures show that attendance did rise, from 3 percent at Citrus High to 11 percent at CREST. Not all of this is because of the Wheels for Attendance program, of course, but it sure didn't hurt.

It would be wonderful if every kid went to school solely for the joy of learning and of bettering themselves. Just as it would be neat if we all went to work each day because of the self-fulfillment that comes from honest and productive labor.

But we go to work because we need the money. The rest is gravy.

"Every day in the business world, through bonuses and raises, we bribe people to do better," Jewel Lamb pointed out.

Some cynics have said that the Lambs did this for selfish reasons: tax write-offs, free publicity and the like. Lamb shot down those notions.

"We get no tax benefits because we gave the car to an individual, not a charity," she said, while noting that the $20,000 for the car came out of their advertising budget.

She said the program, which will be back next year, actually hurt them with some customers. "I've had people tell me that we could give them a better price if we weren't doing so much for the school system."

Citrus County should thank not only the Lambs for their effort but also Linda VanAllen, whose insurance company put up money for the cash prizes, and the Citrus County Education Foundation, which helped run the contest and paid the car's sales tax.

A similar attendance drive at Inverness Middle School that awarded three new bicycles for kids and three weekend trips for parents came about thanks to Suncoast Bicycles Plus, Absolute Travel and Accent Travel and the school's Parent Teacher Student Organization.

Maybe more businesses this year will jump on the bandwagon and offer incentives, just as some parents promise their kids money for each A on their report card. Whatever works.

As for those who would criticize these good works?

"Those people," Jewel Lamb said, "are just the devil in disguise."

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