Charlotte-Mecklenburg's new preK-8 schools are less than three weeks old, but Ashley Park Principal Tonya Kales reports one unexpected lesson: She's rethinking the value of making children repeat a grade.
A longtime elementary school teacher and administrator, Kales says she's been among those who think it can help to hold back a kindergartener who's struggling with basic skills or a third-grader who's far behind in reading and math.
Then her middle-schoolers reported, and she realized some will celebrate their 16th birthdays in eighth grade. They're physically and socially out of step with their younger classmates, and they're frustrated at not being in high school. Most, Kales says, were held back in early grades, when it seemed like no big deal. Now their parents and teachers are trying desperately to keep them from giving up on school.
Kales is getting a first-hand look at what the N.C. School Psychology Association has been saying for years: "It turns out that retention is not a 'gift of time,' as might be intended, but a year-long sentence to be served," says a 2005 NCSPA position statement.
Research done at CMS found that children do perform better when they repeat a grade, but in subsequent years they fall behind classmates who were weak on skills but were not held back. By eighth grade, the held-back students are far more likely to fail exams and get suspended, the study found.
"Retention is the most powerful predictor of who will drop out," the position paper says. "One retention increases the likelihood by 4 to 5 times; two retentions increase the likelihood of dropping out to almost 100 percent."
The NCSPA doesn't advocate turning a blind eye and "socially promoting" students without addressing their failures. Instead, it urges schools to find ways to keep children with their peers while providing the extra help to catch up.
Update at 6:20 p.m.: Just stumbled on a clip I'd been looking for this morning. In 2010, Superintendent Peter Gorman made it tougher for principals to retain students, for pretty much the reasons cited above. "We don't believe a student who is 17 and in their middle-school years is ever going to graduate, " Gorman said. "We've got to get them into an alternative high school setting."
CMS has created alternative settings, such as the Transitional 9 Program at Hawthorne High. But that doesn't help students who have already been held back; they can't get into alternative high-school programs until they complete eighth grade.