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Wed November 9, 2011
Can Tyra Banks Get Kids To School? Seattle Says Yes
Kids aren't usually eager to wake up and get to school in the morning. They might be, though, if their favorite musician or professional athlete called to coax them out of bed — or if a shiny new bike were on the line.
At least, that's what adults in Seattle think. So the city has a new plan to improve school attendance.
Isaac Bennett, 16, lives a few houses down from his high school in north Seattle. Yet the junior didn't make it there very often last year.
"I had like 167 absences for sophomore year, which wasn't good," he says with a laugh.
He says one of his biggest struggles was first period world history. Getting up was tough because he'd stay up late to toss a virtual football around on the X-Box. Try as they might, his parents were no match for the mock New England Patriots. They'd tell him to shut off the game at 9:30 p.m., again at 10 and at 10:30. They even tried taking it away.
"But they'll eventually fall asleep," Bennett says. "And I would just, behind their back, just like still play video games when they're not awake."
His parents didn't have much more luck in the mornings. Once they went to work, no one was there to shoo him off to school — until one of his favorite rappers showed up.
"Yo. What up?" a recording says. "It's your boy Wiz Khalifa, man, from Get Schooled, talking to all you kids in Seattle, letting y'all know you need to get up out of the bed and go to school. Get to class, on time."
Bennett says Wiz Khalifa can get him going because he's one of his favorite rappers.
Other celebrities, including America's Next Top Model host Tyra Banks and professional quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, have also recorded wake-up calls that students can sign up for through the national Get Schooled Foundation.
Seattle officials are pushing the calls, plus a variety of prizes and mentorship programs, to motivate truant kids to change their ways.
"The statistics around attendance are very compelling," says Mayor Mike McGinn, who is leading the charge. "If somebody misses more than 10 days of school a year, [it's a] very high predictor that they're not going to finish high school."
McGinn's office is spending nearly $50,000 to coordinate and implement the effort. Local businesses are donating the prizes — everything from VIP concert tickets to free gourmet ice cream for the whole school. McGinn says the model is similar to a fairly successful approach in New York.
"It's a very clear statement that being in school matters," he says. "But it's also a message to the broader community that they have a role to play in getting engaged."
Peter Colino teaches math at Ingraham High School, where Isaac Bennett skipped all those classes. He says if the kids get a job, they're not going to have someone calling them to wake them up.
"If they don't go to work, they're simply not going to have their job," Colino says. "And this is what happens if you don't come to school — you don't graduate."
Besides, he says, flashy prizes and celebrity robo-calls won't fix family issues or other problems that keep a lot of students from making it to school.
Still, high school junior Isaac Bennett says that for him, these incentives can be the extra little push he needs.
"Just, I guess, to keep myself motivated," he says. "Like, oh, I'm getting prizes and I'm doing a good job in school, you know. Ding, you're like, 'I'm coming to school everyday.'"
While he hasn't quite done that, Bennett's attendance has dramatically improved. Adults behind the effort say getting kids to school more often is the whole point. And it doesn't matter if it takes pizza, sports stars, or musicians to do it.