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River Valley officials eye off-campus lunch as incentive

Kids are not the biggest fans of carrots, but River Valley High School administrators hope dangling an off-campus lunch incentive before students may spur them to perform better in the classroom and on state standardized testing.

School board members have been talking for months about how to successfully tempt students to work harder and concluded that revisions to its closed campus policy may be the ticket. Under the policy, eligible students would receive five to 10 passes to eat lunch off campus in exchange for boosting their GPA and raising a level on their state testing.

"We have tons of students who do not try ... If they would just try, we would be over 800, I think," said Principal Tom Reusser, referring to state targets all schools must meet. River Valley reached 763 in 2011.

The incentives are intended to boost test scores among all students and reduce D and F rates. Educators considered various options for awarding the off-campus passes, among them to reward students who reach the advanced or proficient categories and had a C average or better. In that case, about 500 to 550 teens would be eligible.

But the proposal has stirred heated discussions at board meetings about the fairness of rewarding only students who may be naturally academically inclined and putting a reward out of reach for those who struggle.

"We are giving a reward to people who may not be working very hard to get it, and we may be giving nothing to people who are working very hard on the other end," said board member James Ferreira.

He questioned how effective such an incentive would be. Without an attainable incentive, students who score basic or below basic may not even try to improve, he said.

"If you are one of the kids who are on the very bottom, and you know you are never going to get this, why would they even try?" Ferreira said.

Finally, board members agreed it is best to reward students with a C average or better who move up a level in math or English scores or are already at the highest performing level. That group amounts to about 300 students.

Every Friday, a select group could leave campus if they had parent permission and provide photo ID at the gate. The number of students would be limited and vary from week to week, and freshmen are not eligible, Reusser said.

The idea came from a teacher who heard about such incentives during accreditation visits. With a little research, the district saw other schools have similar programs, including Yuba City High School.

Yuba City has an open-campus lunch policy because it does not have the capacity to feed all of its enrolled students. It offers other incentives for improved state testing performance, including extra tickets to graduation and preferred parking spots.

The schools' scores are relatively similar, with about 48 percent of students scoring proficient or advanced in English and about 24 percent of students scoring proficient or advanced in math.

River Valley was designed as a closed campus before its opening in 2005, after it was ruled too dangerous for students to be crossing the highway.

But gradually, more students found loopholes for off-campus lunch breaks. Last year, more than 275 students were eligible to sign themselves out for lunch because they were 18 or older, and the school received up to 130 phone calls a day from parents saying their children could leave, Reusser said.

Restrictions were increased, and now most off-campus food arrives by parental delivery or on-campus vendors.

Eating pizza delivered by his mom for his birthday during the last days of school, sophomore Livan Becerra said he thinks the incentive is a great idea.

"It gives you a reward if you work hard," he said.

He and freshman Maleek Stewart said they want opportunities to leave for lunch.

"I am working hard, but I can work harder if you guys let me go off campus," he said.

Junior Cache Carbah agreed.

"Probably harder than I would before, because I never try on those," he said of the standardized tests.

"Bubbling in" answers is a common problem, administrators say. Because state testing has no impact on student grades, graduation or college eligibility, many teens fill in answers at random or not at all.

"We know we operate under this insane system where it is high stakes for the adults and there is no stakes for the students. And that's a problem in the system overall," said Dina Luetgens, president of the Yuba City Teachers Association.

She applauded River Valley's idea for an incentive and the idea of GPA rewards.

"We send a message to students that this is important — we value your academics and your learning," she said. "Our students do have a good degree of control over their GPA. We know students who are present in class and at least work at it, can at least attain a 2.0."

The school board and Reusser stressed this incentive is not an opportunity to revisit the idea of making River Valley an open campus. They will finalize the policy later this summer.

"This is just a trial situation," said board member Fred Northern. "I want it to return on a year-to-year basis."

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