School Culture

Inspiring Learning Through Incentives

Layering incentives at classroom, grade, and schoolwide levels creates a culture of positivity and achievement where students celebrate milestones in their individual and shared learning.

February 16, 2016
Photo credit: Edutopia

At Walter Bracken STEAM Academy Elementary School, we leverage learning through consistent schoolwide incentives. It isn't just the incentives that engage students, but a combination of rewards, total school commitment, and consistency from adults that have created incredible academic results and happy students. Within our student body, 93.1 percent are predicted to make benchmark on the STAR reading assessment. As of early February, 468 students have read 68,623 books since the school year began. In of our first and fifth grades, 81 percent have reached fluency for their grade level benchmark. We recognize the power of consistency through guaranteeing all students the same incentives regardless of their classroom assignment for the year. This creates a motivating atmosphere which, coupled with the positive schoolwide attitude, ensures that students are engaged in their learning.

Layers of Incentives

We have several layers of incentives that we believe are important to meet the needs of all students.


Every teacher has incentives designed to provide students with clear feedback on appropriate classroom behavior, and a path to progress toward mastery of the curriculum. Teachers are free to design their own incentives here. Which system they choose isn't as important as the fact that there is a system in place and that it's followed consistently.

Grade Level

We have two types of grade-level incentives, one for reading and one for math. For reading, we use the Accelerated Reader (AR) system for tracking. Students earn a point when they pass a quiz demonstrating comprehension. Quizzes can range in value based on the complexity of the book. We like AR because most of our books have a comprehension quiz to prove that students have read and understood the story. Easy books have five questions, and more difficult books have ten.

For math, we use Rocket Math. When students master key units, they receive a certificate and a charm. For math, they get one charm each for all addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division facts. For reading, they get one charm for each series of books that they complete.

Once a month, we calculate all the points for all classes. The class with the highest number of points gets to house the grade-level trophy in their room for the next month. Classrooms love to win the trophies, which keeps their achievement levels high.

But we don't just incentivize academics. We also hold a monthly citizenship assembly to award good citizens, junior chefs, and the grade-level trophies. Each grade level performs at one assembly a year.


Schoolwide incentives provide another layer of teacher support that can be incorporated into classroom and campus management. Our students earn I spy tickets from all staff members for doing good things. They can be given out for any reason at all. Each Friday, the students with ten I spy tickets come to the office to receive a prize from the principal. If they have 20, they get a sticker sheet and the prize of the week. This is a standard routine that the students can count on, and it allows playground supervisors, custodians, and lunchroom supervisors to pass out rewards when kids make good choices.

Emphasis on Reading

Reading is positively reinforced across the campus through our Reading Series Explorations. This is a program where students choose entire series of books that they want to read and work with different staff (not necessarily their own teachers) to accomplish their goals.

Leveling Up With Series

Book series are a great way to engage tentative readers. We have created face bookmarks which students use to track their progress. For instance, if Johnny wants to read the Hardy Boys, he takes his own face bookmark to Mr. Harris and then gets the first book in the series, as well as a series bookmark. Each book lives in a pocket which also includes the series bookmark. Johnny reads the book he's chosen and takes a quiz. If he passes it with 80 percent or better, he returns to Mr. Harris and exchanges his book for the next one in the series. When he's done with the series, he shows the bookmark to Mr. Harris and gets a charm. He reclaims his face bookmark and goes on to the next level-appropriate series that he wants to read.

All teachers and support staff participate in this program to create a total school commitment toward literacy. Students earn a charm for each completed series, and their necklaces are proudly displayed in their classrooms. Each student immediately earns a certificate and charm when they complete a level in Rocket Math, delivered to the classroom by administration. In addition, each month the students can earn a Lucky Ducky for completing 20 AR points. This is a stretch goal for most students, and they're very excited when they win a duck.

Managing the Costs

Our school is committed to implementing all programs with integrity and consistency. This creates a very positive environment where all students know exactly what is expected, can choose their learning goals, and are consistently rewarded. Think of it as getting a paycheck for your job and a raise for a job with extra effort. While some of our reward systems are expensive, we also add strategies to reduce the costs where we can. The trophies are purchased only once and are given back at the end of the month to be earned again. The charm necklaces require an initial investment, but we're always coming up with trade-in strategies to recycle the charms. Certificates and I spy tickets don't cost much at all but are very powerful as a schoolwide system. As a staff, we know that we need all of these systems in place and would certainly add more, but we never consider losing any of these established reward systems.

School Snapshot

Walter Bracken STEAM Academy Elementary School

Grades PK-5 | Las Vegas, NV
527 | Public, Urban
Per Pupil Expenditures
$9402 School$8576 State
Free / Reduced Lunch
54% Hispanic
18% White
12% Black
7% Multiracial
Data is from the 2014-2015 academic year.

This blog post is part of our Schools That Work series, which features key practices from Walter Bracken STEAM Academy Elementary School.

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  • Administration & Leadership
  • English Language Arts
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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