(NewsNation) — Administrators at Nashville’s Warner Elementary School were concerned about the school’s high levels of absences among their students and devised a solution to incentivize families to get their kids to school.
The school’s principal, Ricki Gibbs, noticed a correlation between chronically absent students and families that needed support.
Starting in January 2020, Gibbs and his colleagues decided to try a new approach to combating absenteeism. Backed by community donations, they set up a marketplace called the Warner Exchange within the school that opens one day every month.
Every student at the school would get five “Warner Bucks” for every day they came to school. Their families could then use these dollars to buy items from the Warner Exchange.
The store includes basic household items like cleaning products, baby food, diapers and other necessities that families use in their daily lives. The items are priced at about what they would be at local grocery stores.
“If we’re truly trying to change family history, if we’re truly trying to change children’s trajectory you don’t do that through a handout. We can only do that by ensuring they receive a world-class education. But you can’t ensure a child receives a world-class education if they’re not in school,” Gibbs said.
He estimated that chronic absenteeism has dropped from around 42% when the program started to 28% today, although it should be noted that the program hasn’t been rigorously studied so it’s impossible to know whether other factors contributed to increased attendance as well.
There is documented evidence in Brazil where studies of the county’s cash transfer program found the incentives boosted vaccination rates, school attendance and even student participation.
In Nashville, Gibbs is strict about enforcing the conditions. You need Warner Bucks to buy items from the market and you can’t obtain them without school attendance. Gibbs said he hasn’t run into parents complaining about the system, but he speculated about how he would respond.
“If we do run into a situation where a parent is upset they can’t access the space because their child hasn’t been at school, I mean I would just reply: ‘I’m upset your child ain’t at school. So now we’re both upset,'” he said. “We don’t believe in giving handouts. Handouts have never helped anyone become better.”