Cash Draws Troubled Youths to Straight and Narrow : Juveniles: Group homes find success in offering monetary rewards for good grades and conduct. One graduate says system saved his life.


When Squeaky left his family for a group home, he was teetering on the edge of delinquency--a hard drinker whose most ardent efforts were applied to avoiding high school.

But then he turned his life around, and not because of a revelation on the road to Damascus. To some extent, Squeaky was saved by cold, hard cash, awarded by the home for good conduct and good grades.

Call it incentive; call it bribery. Squeaky says it helped save his life.

If he had stayed at home and not learned the connection between hard work and rewards, he says, “I’d have been dead and gone by now.”


At the group home--one of several operated by the nonprofit Davis-Stuart Inc.--boys can earn $150 a semester for a 3.5 grade-point average, $100 for a 3.0, and $50 for a 2.5. Those who do their chores best earn an extra $20 a month. Those who make their beds every morning and get to class on time can earn another $20.

No surprise: Money is a motivator for teen-agers.

“Many kids come from disadvantaged backgrounds and have never seen $100. That really startles them,” says Greg Johnson, director of Davis-Stuart homes in the West Virginia towns of Princeton, Beckley and Bluefield.

The boys often purchase televisions, stereos and letter jackets.

“We usually try to guide them into getting something special,” says house mother Silvana Berkshire, who lives in the Princeton home with her husband, Merle.

Rewarding students for learning is becoming more popular; even House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) supports paying children to read books.

The practice often yields quick results, says Don Peek, director for research and education at the Institute for Academic Excellence in Madison, Wis., which encourages students to read through incentive programs.

Rewards such as music and snacks are more common than cash, but students must learn to appreciate learning for itself, he says.

Thomas Fleming of Ypsilanti, Mich., the 1992 national teacher of the year, has taught at juvenile homes in Michigan for more than 23 years and knows how difficult it is to show troubled youths why they need an education.

He says rewards teach students early the connection between good work and tangible rewards. Money motivates teen-agers because of materialistic messages that bombard them, Fleming says.

Davis-Stuart Inc. is a nonprofit group funded by the state, the Presbyterian Church and private businesses, foundations and individuals. It has been lauded by the state Juvenile Justice Committee for the attitude and results the cash incentives produce.

Juveniles who live away from home need some incentive, educators say. They are most at risk for school failure, dropping out, delinquency, incarceration, addiction and other problems, the West Virginia Board of Education says in a report on delinquency.

At the Davis-Stuart home in Princeton, the leafy yard, new porch swing, back-yard barbecue and lace curtains give the group home for five troubled teen-age boys the air of a fraternity house.

The kitchen, dining room and living rooms are spotless, thanks to daily chores, which are a source of pride among the boys.

The five boys come from varied backgrounds, which include growing up with sexual, physical or mental abuse, drug-abusing parents and absent parents.

From the minute they arrive, the Berkshires stress education. They question the boys about grades when they get home from school.

Merle Berkshire says doing well in school helps the teen-agers in other things.

“Most of the kids have had problems in school, not because of their intelligence, but because of the situations they’ve been in,” he says. “When they see themselves doing better, their self-esteem goes up.”

Squeaky, 18, who requested anonymity, graduated from high school and enrolled in June at diesel engine school in Nashville, Tenn. He spent four years in the home after agreeing he needed the discipline.

He occasionally visits his family in nearby Beckley but now considers this his home.