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Making the Grade with Custom T-Shirt Rewards

If you walk the halls of Cabrillo High School, you’re sure to see a healthy mix of trendy styles. Like every other high school in Long Beach, students show off their own unique flair with popular brands and gear that represent who they are. If you look closer, however, you’ll notice that there’s something different about the students of Cabrillo High. While many of them are wearing their own styles, many more are wearing matching custom t-shirts, hoodies, and other apparel. This custom spirit wear may look like it’s just about school pride, but if you ask the students about their shirts they’ll beam with pride because these shirts can’t just be bought in any school spirit store, they have to be earned.

A custom t-shirt design for the women in stem team from Cabrillo high school.

Students at Cabrillo High School help design their own shirts, teaching them collaboration and design structures.

When Kenneth Fisher started as a math teacher at Cabrillo High School 22 years ago, the school’s reputation wasn’t anything to write home about. “Students would be embarrassed to say they even attended Cabrillo,” he says. “We walked around the campus during lunch and found that there were more students wearing gear from other high schools in the Long Beach area.” But in 2009, a new principle challenged the teachers with a difficult task—get the students to wear “Cabrillo Gear.” The idea was that if more students wore school gear, then both school pride and performance would increase.

Around this same time, the school also began a push in one of its four career pathways, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). As a member of the mathematics department, Kenneth helped form Cabrillo Engineering and Design (CED) in an effort to push students further into the STEM world. “We set up competition teams and created events in which students could interact with professionals from STEM careers,” he says. But with 86% of the students on free and reduced lunch programs and many learning English as a second language, there was still a need to give students more motivation to succeed.

Using the new spirit wear initiative as a base, Kenneth created a system of t-shirt rewards in order to encourage his students to strive for even greater success. The program was simple—in order to motivate hard work and reward dedication, students could receive shirts for a number of accomplishments including participating in events like the school’s Women in STEM Symposium and Luncheon, participating on CED competition teams, taking Kenneth’s AP calculus class, and achieving different levels of the honor roll. 

A man and his wife support a local team of students while wearing custom jackets.

Kenneth and his wife Emily cheer on the Cabrillo High School Solar Cup team in their custom windbreakers.

In order to make the shirts even more desirable, the initial designs are created by the students in the different programs themselves. Once the design is ready, it is handed over to the artists at Custom Ink, who help the students refine and revise until a final design is agreed upon. “It is a lengthy process because students are learning about design structures and many times want a last-minute addition,” Kenneth says. “The artists are always patient and are willing to listen to suggestions from the students.” 

Try these tips to start
your own t-shirt rewards system
  1. Pick something you want to encourage.
  2. Tell your students how they can earn a reward.
  3. Choose a great shirt.
  4. Create a design or use one of our templates.
  5. Give the kids something they’re proud to wear.

With custom school apparel created by the students themselves, it didn’t take long before the t-shirt rewards program began to show results. Before the start of the program, there were fewer than 100 students out of the 504 on the STEM pathway who achieved a place on the honor roll.  This number skyrocketed to 161 students on the honor roll in the first year of the rewards program and increased to 224 students by the end of the 2019 spring semester.

The custom t-shirts have pushed more kids to challenge themselves as well. During the 2014-2015 school year, a group of students created the Women in Stem Luncheon and Women Empowerment Symposium to connect students with successful women in STEM fields. Since its inception, the luncheon has grown from a small group of students and 11 professionals to 106 girls speaking with 44 professionals from 24 different companies. While the number of girls entering the STEM program at Cabrillo has stayed consistent at about 30 percent since the first luncheon the percentage of girls leaving Cabrillo and entering a STEM degree at various universities has nearly tripled according to data from the school.

A student shows off her custom t-shirt while at a competition.

Stephanie Garcia poses in her 2019 Women in STEM shirt while in the lobby of P2S Engineering during her mentoring session with a civil engineer.

Kenneth’s AP Calculus class has also seen greater attendance each year since the start of the program. “What started as only six students in 2003 has now grown to 110 students this year,” he says. “When asked why they want to take such a rigorous course, they comment on the team structure and the cool AP Calculus shirts.” 

While the academic success the t-shirt rewards program has achieved has been phenomenal, there’s something more that Kenneth sees the program and shirts doing at the school. With a large population of his students coming from difficult financial backgrounds, the program gives many students opportunities that they may not have had otherwise. ”For many of my students, getting a new shirt is sometimes the only new attire they have received in some time. Some students have worn either the hoodie or long sleeve shirt almost every day during the winter, as it is the only warm clothing they own.” 

A team of students show off their custom team shirts after competing in an engineering competition.

The Solar Cup (Solar Boat) team poses for a picture in their custom Solar Cup jackets after placing 3rd in the rookie division of the 2018 Solar Cup Race.

Since the start of the t-shirt rewards program, Kenneth has tried to introduce new custom t-shirt incentives for the students every year and has watched with pride as both school spirit and performance have increased. “It all started with a basic plan to help the students get spirit gear and now has turned into a school with students who take pride in and enjoy saying they attend Cabrillo High school.”

Two young women in custom t-shirts pose in front of the California Institute of Technology sign.

Cabrillo students Angy Saucedo and Lorena Lumada show off their CED shirts from Cabrillo high school while on a trip to Cal Tech.

For other schools looking into starting a similar program, he has this advice, “Stay true to you and your students. How can you best help them to become the people they want to become? Giving students hope and helping them find their path in life is what we are all trying to do as teachers. Most importantly help your students find their pride and love for themselves and family through your program. It starts with taking pride in your school. Most students want to find that pride, but it is hard for them to express it—a great shirt is the beginning of that expression.”

Grant is the Copywriter at Custom Ink. He loves stories of all kinds and actively seeks to enthrall everyone around him with exciting tales, even if they’re about everyday events. Outside of storytelling, Grant loves to immerse himself in movies, television, books, and games, as well as go exploring in order to draw inspiration for the worlds in his mind.

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