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Canoga Park School Has Golden Ways to Recognize Students

<i> Jocelyn Y. Stewart is a Times staff writer. </i>

A nd the winner s are . . .

“Jonathan Ajar who wins free doughnuts. . . .

“Alexis Betton-Schinck who wins a free stuffed dog. . . .

“Thi Thu Hoang who wins an ‘early-to-lunch’ pass. . . .”

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OK, so it’s not exactly the Academy Awards or the Grammies, but to students at John A. Sutter Middle School in Canoga Park this may be the next best thing.

They get their names read over the PA system for the whole school to hear; they get pats on the back from friends and teachers, and they get a prize.

When you’re in middle school, it really doesn’t get much better than this.

Each Thursday morning in Gold Rush, what was known in the old days as “homeroom,” Sutter students sit at their desks, listening intently as school officials call off the week’s list of winners.

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The accomplishments that have brought them this fame and (albeit small) fortune?

Making it to school on time every day, turning in homework, picking up trash on the school grounds.

In the eyes of Jim Avallone, Sutter’s assistant principal, this behavior merits recognition, a pat on the back, “a plain ol’ ‘atta boy.’ ” Or “atta girl.”

“We need more ‘atta boys’ in the schools,” Avallone said. “Students need positive reinforcement.”

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Avallone, a man brimming with ideas, enthusiasm and optimism, has a ready “atta boy” fixed on his lips. If first impressions are correct, Avallone still believes in his ability to make a positive difference in the lives of kids and still gets excited about discovering new ways to do just that.

The Sutter Gold Club is one of his ideas.

The plan is simple: teachers and counselors take note of students exhibiting good behavior, and the students receive coupons that allow them a chance to win prizes at a drawing each week. Those students whose names are selected walk away with the prizes.

In a district strapped for cash, the most difficult part is finding ways to reward the students, so Avallone and others at the school have turned to private businesses for help.

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“My philosophy is, it doesn’t hurt to ask, all they can do is say no,” he said.

He knocks on doors, he calls, he writes letters. Multimillion dollar corporations and mom-and-pop businesses--they’re all the same, the way Avallone sees it. Everyone can give a little something.

“You’d be surprised, there are companies that want to help. . . . I really feel the community is looking for a way to connect with the schools but sometimes they either don’t take the initiative or they don’t know how to make the connection.”

Avallone really doesn’t ask for much. A free meal from a restaurant, a free haircut from a barbershop, a free tape from a record store. The cost to most merchants is negligible, and from participating they sometimes learn something about students.

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When Sutter students visit businesses to redeem the certificates, merchants quickly see that not all teen-agers and pre-teen-agers are taggers lying in wait to graffiti their businesses and property.

“They can see we’ve got some good students,” Avallone said.

And to the students, the inexpensive gifts can make a world of a difference.

“Sometimes it’s hard for us to understand,” Avallone said. “These little things mean so much to a student.”

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Still, Avallone is realistic about the program.

“I would like to say it reaches every single child and gets them to do everything we want them to do,” he said. “For some it works, for some it doesn’t. The sixth-graders tend to respond more.”

For those who do respond, the gifts speak a message that can benefit students of all ages: Someone is watching when they achieve--as well as when they fail--and there is a consequence for both.

Through the Gold Club--the PA announcements, certificates and gifts--Sutter faculty members have given students the kind of recognition that boosts young egos and fosters pride, said Marie Claire Henneman, coordinator for the English as a Second Language program.

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“I need it, you need it, we all need it,” she said.

Brook Franklin, a polite sixth-grader with pretty brown eyes and a warm smile, is a Gold Club winner. Standing in the office after picking up her prize, she helped explain why more students are getting to class on time and behaving better since the Gold Club started.

“If they get something for it, it makes them want to come to school more,” she said, holding the Dodger yearbook/program she won for being on time to class three weeks straight. “It makes me feel I should come to school every day on time.”

And the recognition helps too.

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“It’s very exciting getting your name called--even if it is wrong,” said a smiling Shadi Halavi, after correcting Avallone’s pronunciation of her name.

Students like Brook; Paul Vincente, who announced that he felt “pretty good” after winning a sports video, and Isis Nix, another winner, will probably remember the prizes and their moments of acclaim--however brief. In some small way, it may help shape the way they act in the future.

Avallone and his colleagues at Sutter know that, and perhaps that is why they work so hard searching for ways to keep students motivated, to help them maintain a positive attitude toward school and learning.

And that is why Avallone and the others are always on the lookout for new ways to reward the students--even in the middle of an interview.

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“This is a good one,” Avallone declares in a voice bright with excitement. “The Los Angeles Times provides the buses and the kids go on a trip to see The Times.

“They see printing presses and things they’ve never seen before! They have lunch there in your cafeteria! That’d be great! How about it?”


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