Twelve-year-old Hwan Kim and nearly 300 other students at Millikan Junior High School in Sherman Oaks learned last week that even though they don't have big incomes or bank accounts, they qualify for "Gold Cards."
As with the well-known credit card, the Gold Cards awarded to these students are an instant tip-off of their holders' status. Instead of income level, the Millikan students' Gold Cards signify that they have achieved good grades and exemplary behavior and performed certain services for the school.
The card entitles them to discounts for pizza, McDonald's hamburgers, sports supplies and stationery from participating businesses. It was introduced at Millikan three years ago as an incentive for C students to aim higher. But it also has become a tool for improving student behavior at a time when educators say a mere "pat on the back" is less of a motivator than some sort of tangible reward.
"Our dream is that we can try to develop a system where we can have hundreds of businesses" as well as lawyers, plumbers and doctors involved in awarding students for good grades or behavior, said Norm Isaacs, the Millikan assistant principal who devised the Gold Card program three years ago.
"It would make a tremendous difference to the development of the students' feelings about themselves and their grades," he said.
The card, a piece of laminated plastic, has the student's photo on it and a list of businesses that will grant cardholders discounts from 5% to 20%. Some businesses offer two-for-one deals.
To qualify for a Gold Card, students must have at least a 3.5 grade-point average and be absent no more than twice during a seven-month period, from September to March each year. Students must perform at least 40 hours of service for their school per semester or, alternatively, receive an "excellent" rating from all their teachers for their work habits and cooperation.
Now in its third year, the program is being copied by the Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies, a Los Angeles Unified School District magnet program.
Hwan, whose school service tasks included planning school dances and doling out school money for teachers' supplies, called the pocket-sized card an "appreciation card" that shows administrators recognize students' efforts.
She and other recipients said they valued the expression of appreciation. But for others, the discounts are important.
"I hope it's made a difference," Isaacs said. "It's become very meaningful for children to use that card. They could take their whole family to Sizzler's and get a 20% discount. I heard some kid say he went to Sizzler's--it was the first time the whole family went to dinner."
The idea almost failed before it could begin when only one of 500 businesses responded to letters that asked them to participate. Isaacs walked door-to-door in Sherman Oaks and in Chinatown, where about 500 students who are bused to Millikan live, pitching his program to shop owners.
The effort worked and 31 companies will participate this year. In the program's first year, 45 students were eligible for the Gold Card. That number rocketed to 260 out of an enrollment of about 1,650 students last year.
Eligible students had their pictures taken for the cards Friday night, then attended a ceremony in which they were praised by local and school officials. The cards are valid from March to October.
Millikan history instructor Ruben Zepeda said the Gold Card program is necessary because merely praising students has little lasting effect.
"We're such an object-oriented society. The Gold Card is better than a pat on the back," Zepeda said. "The kids that are really at risk or disruptive--if they see the financial opportunity of the Gold Card, they see a purpose in school and a reward for doing well."
Some students said those who knew about the program were mainly students who already worked hard on academics and good citizenship.
"Most students I know don't work hard," said Rachel Weinstein, a ninth-grader who acknowledged she knew little about the program. Her grades are mostly Bs and Cs. "I don't think they would work hard for a Gold Card."