Shawn Rux took over as principal of MS 53, a New York City middle school, last year. At the time, 50 or 60 kids were absent every day. You could understand why they stayed away: The school was chaos.
Twenty-two teachers had quit, the entire office staff had quit, and hundreds of kids had been suspended. The school was given a grade of F from the city's department of education.
"It was in a bad place," Rux says.
Rux decided he needed to create incentives for kids to come to school. Incentives that were more obvious to middle-school kids than, "If you come to school you'll be better off 20 years from now."
He handed out raffle tickets to anyone who showed up to school on time. One of the prizes was an Xbox. And he threw in an element of randomness: The first kids in line when the doors opened might get 20 tickets.
It worked. Kids started showing up early.
"It was ... like, 'Get out of my way, I'm trying to get into school,' " Rux says. "It was nice."
Rux also created his own currency. He called it Rux Bux. Teachers hand them out when kids are well behaved. They can be traded in for school supplies, or special lunches. A sixth-grader named Wander Rodriguez is trying to save up 5,000 Rux Bux — enough for a personal shopping spree with Rux.
The principal also stands outside school every morning, greeting the students as they show up. This recognition is another, subtler incentive to come to school.
"I like this school," Wander Rodriguez says. "They treat me like home, they treat me nice, they always give me stuff. ... They always say 'hi' in the mornings."
The school went from an F to a C. Daily attendance went up to over 90 percent. Then the hurricane hit.
The school is in Far Rockaway, Queens — one of the areas hardest hit by the storm. Some kids' homes were destroyed. One student who stayed at home through the storm told a teacher, "My apartment complex was in the middle of the ocean." Rux's car was destroyed. The first floor of his house was flooded.
After the storm, after school started up again, Rux's goal was to get attendance back to 90 percent. Every day, his staff texts him the attendance numbers. The day I visited last week, 89.2 percent of students attended school. Close, but not close enough for Rux.
The storm has been tough on everyone, he says. But that's no excuse. Kids have to be in school.