Second-graders Stephanie Chacon and Dejinee Mitchell spent their lunch break Monday roaming around their Oxnard schoolyard picking up trash.
When their white plastic sack was stuffed so full they could barely carry it, they delivered the bag to a teacher's aide--and got a small peach-colored card in return.
Dejinee and Stephanie are two of hundreds of students at Bernice Curren Elementary School who have embraced a program that teachers credit for changing the behavior of many of the school's students.
Implemented in October by Principal Renee Ripps, the program rewards students for behaving well.
When youngsters pick up trash, assist a fellow student, serve as role models in the classroom or help school staff, they often receive a thank-you card. Once students have 10 cards, they are directed to a treasure trunk to pick out a prize that might be a poster, a wallet, a key chain or a book.
"I've seen a tremendous change in the behavior of my students," said Telma Verdugo, an instructor in a first- and second-grade class of 31 students. "Before the program it was awful. Every day after lunch, I would receive reports about the kids fighting or having arguments. . . . Since the program started, I have not received any."
Ripps said her school, like many others, offers rewards for academic achievements, but she also wanted to add rewards for good behavior.
"I want to give them a chance to do something positive; to teach them how to do the right thing and make them feel that they are contributing to create a better world," Ripps said. "Besides, this is their second home and they need to be taught how to take care of it."
To launch the program, Ripps said, she had a student design the 3-by-4-inch prize card, which reads "Help us Create the Peace. Start at School." In addition, Ripps managed to get $1,800 worth of prizes from Vons grocery stores.
Five months after the program began, students carry their cards like trophies as they pass the word around.
Shirley Haney, a school assistant who coordinates the lines in the cafeteria and watches over students on the playground, said children come to her asking what they can do to get a card.
"The kids seem much more enthused about keeping the school cleaned and they treat each other much better," said Haney, who carries thank-you cards in her fanny-pack. "They get a kick out of receiving a card."
Although some students do a good deed just because they want a prize, others feel pride in behaving well and in keeping the school clean, Haney said.
Eleven-year-old Melissa Weilbacher, who is collecting a third set of 10 cards, said the program does more than reward students. It makes it OK for youngsters to do things otherwise considered unfashionable.
"If we didn't have the program, I doubt that most of us would go around picking up trash or helping the librarian to put books away. It's just not what kids do," Melissa said. "But the program makes us feel like picking up trash or sweeping the sidewalks is a great thing to do."
For 9-year-old Anthony Perez, keeping the school clean and free of graffiti is as important as helping a needy colleague.
"I used to go to another school where we had trash and graffiti all over the campus," Anthony said. "So I asked my parents if I could move here where the kids seem to really care about the school."
Not everyone is as well-intentioned as Anthony and Melissa.
On Monday, a 6-year-old handed a plastic gun to Haney saying he had found the toy on the school grounds. Haney was about to give the student a thank-you card when she learned that he had brought the plastic gun from home.
"Some are eager to get a prize," Haney said.
To avoid instigating greed among her students, Verdugo said, she gives them cards when they least expect it.
"I don't reward them often so they don't get in the habit of doing things just because they want a prize," Verdugo said. "I want them to understand that doing the right thing is what they should be doing all the time and that they should not expect prizes every time they do something good."