January 16, 2005
By MONICA DAVEY
At 12 years old, Paige Bonds is 5-foot-5, almost as tall as her mother. She already weighs more, a fact she acknowledges with an edge of pride, the pride of growing up. Paige likes doing the same things that other girls who are about to be teenagers like to do: listening to the radio in her bedroom, playing video games, practicing with the school pompom squad.
A year ago, she was the oldest in her class at the public elementary school she attended near her family's apartment on the South Side of Chicago. Then 11, she was in the third grade -- for the third year in a row.
''They were like little bitty ants,'' Paige recalls of the classmates she did not really consider friends. ''I was bigger than all of them.'' This past fall, though, Paige was moved to a class with others her own age and size. Testers concluded last spring that she needed to be in a special education class. But Paige, whose birthday willcome in a few weeks, says she has not made friends among these seventh and eighth graders, either. And little of use goes on in class as far as she is concerned. ''Everyone just plays around too much in there,'' Paige says.
Paige's arduous journey through school is a growing mystery to her. By now, the notion of report cards, of tests, of reading aloud in front of others turns an already shy girl deeper inside herself. Asked her own understanding of why she was held back, again and again, Paige grows quiet, then says, ''I guess the teachers didn't like me.''
EIGHT years ago, as Paige Bonds was starting school in a struggling neighborhood called Englewood, the city's leaders were embarking on a controversial campaign that would change the public school system. In an effort to end the practice known as social promotion, Chicago officials announced what amounted to a get-tough revolution: third, sixth and eighth graders who failed to achieve minimum scores on standardized tests would be required to repeat a grade.
The wisdom of retention, the policy of holding a child back to repeat the same grade, has long been debated. The battle -- between those who believe retention is damaging to children's psyches, social lives and attitudes about school, particularly in disadvantaged neighborhoods, and those who believe it is the best way to improve skills over the long haul -- has played out in waves over decades past. Periods in which retention grew popular are followed by times when it is not.
Chicago's move was among the first in the current wave, and as the third-largest school system in the country, it drew intense attention from elsewhere.
At the moment, retention is rising in popularity nationally, in the wake of Chicago's example and in the climate of school accountability championed by the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind law. As a centerpiece of his education policy, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York City initiated a retention effort last year, as have a range of other municipalities and some entire states. Nationally, more than 15 percent of students ages 6 to 17 are held back at least once before they leave school, according to a 2001 report.
Since its creation, Chicago's policy has evolved. Just last year, school officials reduced the number of times a student could repeat a grade: no more than twice between kindergarten and eighth grade, and the same grade only once. They also decided that failing math scores alone would no longer hold a student back.
Policies from Florida to Texas, however, still allow students to repeat the same grade more than once, just as Paige did. In New York City, about 3,600 students are in third grade for the second time, and more than 150 for the third time.
Among their complaints, critics of retention worry that too many children who get held back are eventually shuffled into special education programs as a way of removing them from the retention rules and as a way of coping with those who seem incapable of meeting the requirements, despite repeated trips through the lesson plans.
''Around the country, social promotion has really morphed from an educational issue into a political issue,'' says Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College at Columbia University. ''Liberals favor social promotion. Conservatives favor leaving people back. So it's a pitched ideological battle in which neither side seems to care about the realities.''
The real experiences of students, he says, send a more nuanced message. ''If you promote someone who isn't ready, it's hard to master the skills at the next level and they don't understand what's going on. If you don't promote them, they're more likely to give up and drop out eventually. In truth, neither of those pictures is very appealing.''
With the television on in the living room one recent afternoon, Paige pulled out her math homework. At the top of the page, she had correctly finished each in a list of single-digit multiplication problems. At the bottom of the page were word problems, all requiring single-digit multiplication:
There are four tables at a party.
Six people are seated at each table.
How many people are at the party?
Paige wrote 10. Beneath each word problem, she had done addition, not multiplication.
Paige says she prefers to spend most of her time indoors, like this afternoon, sometimes playing with a cousin or with her 2-year-old sister, Amanda. Rarely has she invited anyone over from school, says her mother, Kimberly Bonds. Ms. Bonds does not allow her to go outside on Union Avenue without supervision, either. Englewood is not safe for that, she says. The neighborhood has wrestled for years with a poverty rate that is higher than the city average, and household incomes and home values that are lower. There are flashes of gang violence. Paige does not mind staying inside.
She says she wants to be a doctor when she grows up. ''I want to work on people's bodies. And I want to live far away from here. I want to go to a nice neighborhood.''
To get there, she says, she knows what she must do. ''I've just got to pay attention more.''
IN education there are few simple answers. To Kimberly Bonds, there seem to be none. A working mother who herself left high school before graduation, she is desperate to turn her child around, but she seems lost at how to go about it.
By last winter, Ms. Bonds had gone from confused to worried to furious at the Chicago school system. Paige had spent two years in the third grade at Nicholson Elementary School before her mother transferred her, in fall 2003, to Walter Reed Elementary School, a mile away, where Paige was once more enrolled in the third grade. Both schools have high percentages of children receiving free or reduced-price lunch, and for four years in a row both have been labeled ''in need of improvement'' for not meeting performance targets required by No Child Left Behind. That designation allows students to transfer to better schools and to receive supplemental services like tutoring. At both schools, at least 70 percent of third graders failed to meet the reading standard adopted by the State of Illinois to comply with No Child Left Behind.
Each summer, Ms. Bonds says, Paige would go to mandatory summer school. But each year, she wrestled unsuccessfully with the standardized test used by Chicago to assist in retention decisions, and the third grade rerun went on.
When the failing began, Ms. Bonds says she sought the school's advice. She got Paige's hearing tested. She bought Paige her first pair of glasses -- part of the school system's push to get eyesight checks to improve reading. Little seemed to change, though. ''Her self-esteem was dropping,'' she says. ''I couldn't take it. The other kids, littler than her, were labeling her because she was held back. They picked on her and they labeled her a bully.''
Paige was indeed more physically mature than most of the other students in the class, says Cindy Hill, her teacher in that second year of third grade. Paige often fought with the smaller children, she says, and had repeated problems with discipline.
''She was older than the others, and I think she just didn't want to be there,'' Ms. Hill says. Paige struggled in class, particularly with reading, and was tutored in reading twice a week before school, says Ms. Hill. She also gave extra homework sheets to Paige's mother and worked separately with Paige during class, when she could.
Though Paige's attendance was consistent, her academic work improved little. Ms. Hill's judgment is that she had the capability to achieve, but not the desire. ''She missed homework assignments,'' her former teacher says. ''It seemed like she was giving up, like she didn't care. She was reluctant and she would just shut down.''
Many days, Ms. Bonds blames poor teaching and a failed school system for her daughter's struggles. At other moments, she wonders what she should have done differently, much earlier.
Ms. Bonds, now 31, had Paige when she was 19. She depended on her own mother for help with Paige. During many of those years, she worked full time. ''I was just young and I didn't always have enough time for Paige,'' she says.
Today, Ms. Bonds lives with her two girls and longtime boyfriend in a cluttered three-bedroom apartment where the front door knob sometimes falls off. She works odd hours now -- early mornings and evenings -- as a barista at Starbucks. Money is tight, but she has more time at home now with Amanda than she ever did with Paige.
''I'm teaching Amanda her ABC's and her 123's,'' Ms. Bonds says. ''I do wish I would have been here more for Paige, that I would have read to her more. Who doesn't wish they had read more to her kids, right?''
One fall afternoon, on a trip to the public library, she urged Paige to pick a book and advised her that reading can be ''as fun as a video game.'' Paige went along with the idea, and picked a book meant for preteens, but she looked unconvinced. Paige seemed more interested when it came to magazines about movie stars and bands. At the grocery store, Ms. Bonds sometimes buys her one -- any reading, she reasons, is better than none. Though behind her age level, Paige can read, her mother says. ''Her problem is sounding out words.''
Ms. Bonds is at a loss over where things went wrong and what to do about it: Paige is strong-willed. Was she simply not applying herself? Had she fallen so far behind in reading, long before third grade, that she simply could not comprehend third-grade work? Or does she have a disability that makes her unable to grasp the work?
After school some days, Paige stays with Beverly Helm, the aunt of her mother's boyfriend. Ms. Helm is chairwoman of Reed Elementary's parent and community council. She has grown children who went to Reed and little ones still there. In earlier years, she says, Ms. Bonds was not involved enough in her daughter's schooling. She never learned to watch and push and cajole.
''It's the school's job, but you have to stay on the school,'' Ms. Helm scolded Ms. Bonds one afternoon as the pair sat in Ms. Bonds's apartment. ''That becomes a real job.''
By last spring, with Paige in her third year of third grade, Reed officials decided to test Paige, Ms. Bonds says. On forms for the testing, she was asked why she wanted her child tested. ''I just want Paige to get better and love school,'' she wrote.
The tests found that Paige had a ''mild cognitive impairment'' and was eligible for special education, the forms show. The schools created the required Individualized Education Program to plan how Paige would progress and, near the end of the last school year, moved her into a sixth-grade special education class. This fall, she moved on to seventh grade.
THE pictures of the nation's presidents ring the walls of Room 308, where Paige and 13 other students have homeroom. The children have a wide variety of problems, which can create a chaotic, confused atmosphere. One child is autistic. Two others have emotional disabilities and some days disrupt the rest of the class, teachers say.
By October, Paige's class had already seen at least one teacher leave, and substitutes filled the gaps. Sue Stern-Barnett, who has taught regular classes, special education, early childhood education and parenting programs in four states, arrived in Paige's class on Oct. 18.
In Paige, Ms. Stern-Barnett says she found a girl struggling with fear and self-doubt. She often complained of stomach aches and headaches, and she would not read aloud, which left Ms. Stern-Barnett wondering whether she was reading anywhere near grade level, or even at all. ''She is really a sweet little girl, and I think she's just seriously frightened and stressed,'' says Ms. Stern-Barnett. ''Saying to her, 'You should just work harder,' is not going to work. She is trying. One thing that's so hard for the older ones is that they know they have failed.''
Even though she had pressed for special education, Ms. Bonds was questioning her decision. She thought her daughter was being given busywork while the teacher focused on keeping the more troubled children quiet. Paige rarely brought home homework. Paige seemed more lost than ever.
''People just sit in class and act a fool,'' Paige said angrily one day after school, when a substitute teacher had watched Room 308 again. The only activity that seemed to fill her face with light was the prospect of squad practice after school, shaking and waving those gold and blue pompoms.
Ms. Stern-Barnett says that she had begun to assign homework but was trying to spend the first few weeks in her new classroom assessing where these students were academically. It wasn't busywork, necessarily, but some of it would not challenge a typical seventh and eighth grader: the students did addition and subtraction, including decimals, at the blackboard; they wrote stories based on images and on moral dilemmas Ms. Stern-Barnett posed; and they read Chicago Tribune articles that they then explained to their classmates. They began cursive writing.
Ms. Stern-Barnett believes that Paige belongs in special education and could benefit from still more testing to clarify her potential and her deficits. Intensive one-on-one tutoring, she says, may also be needed for Paige to catch up.
But Ms. Helm, like Paige's mother, doubts that Paige belongs in special ed. ''I don't think she has a learning disability,'' Ms. Helm says. ''She's just so far behind. Paige needs to go back from the beginning and start with lower-level reading books and do the phonics.''
Says Ms. Bonds, ''I wish I had never had her tested now.''
IN a study last year, the Consortium on Chicago School Research, a nonprofit group at the University of Chicago that has tracked the city's retention policy, found that the rate of special education placement was higher for students who had been held back than it was for low-performing students who had not been retained.
Nearly 20 percent of third and sixth graders wound up in special ed in a matter of two years.
''These special education placements might reflect the fact that after students were retained, teachers did identify undiagnosed learning disabilities,'' the report says. ''They might reflect a mislabeling of students as facing learning disabilities because teachers lacked an alternative explanation and strategy for the difficulties students were presenting. Or, teachers and schools might have referred students to special education out of concern that, without that status and thus exemption from the policy, these students would not be able to progress -- thus using special education as a means of getting struggling students around the policy.''
Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education and an opponent of retention, says the findings show that the system is working backward when it comes to disabilities. ''Why aren't the students evaluated in a very deep way for special education before they are ever retained?'' Ms. Woestehoff asks. ''Rather than just wholesale prescribing the toxic medicine of retention, the school system should have looked at every child in the first place.''
But Barbara Eason-Watkins, Chicago's chief education officer, does not see special education as a ''first line'' approach. She believes that special supports -- tutoring, after-school programs, summer school -- serve retained students best. Moreover, she says, the number of total referrals to special education has declined in recent years, challenging the notion that retained children are being indiscriminately tossed into programs. Referrals have dropped steadily, to 5,331 elementary students last school year from 6,526 in 2000-01.
School leaders say they have seen overall success since the strict retention policy was instituted broadly in 1997. Last school year, more than 6,800 students in the third, sixth and eighth grades were held back, mainly after failing a citywide test, going through summer school, and failing again. Generally, achievement-test scores have risen, the consortium says, and dropout rates did not increase, as many critics had feared.
''All the schools were doing before was guaranteeing perpetuating the cycles of poverty,'' says Arne Duncan, chief executive of Chicago schools. ''This can be seen as tough medicine but it's medicine that's desperately needed.''
The consortium's report, however, also found that sixth graders who were held back improved in reading less than other low-achieving students who were sent on to the next grade.
And a different study by the consortium concluded that holding students back in the eighth grade increased the odds that they would drop out later.
''I absolutely believe in retaining where it's necessary,'' says Mr. Duncan. That said, he adds, ''I don't think a kid should be held back three times.''
The national debate, meanwhile, rages on. Increasingly, critics say the answers must lie somewhere else -- not in social promotion, not in retention.
Donald R. Moore, executive director of Designs for Change, an education advocacy group that has been deeply critical of Chicago's policy, says the high costs to school districts of retention could be better spent on alternatives to avoid low achievement in the first place -- early childhood education programs, for example, or better training for reading teachers.
To Arthur Levine of Teachers College, the solution is to identify children who are struggling earlier than third grade and offer extra help before retention is even an issue. Or, concentrate just on the failed areas of study rather than dragging a child through an entire year of work all over again, including areas the student has already succeeded in. ''That's boring for those kids,'' he says
Jeffrey B. Hecht, chairman of the Department of Educational Technology, Research and Assessment at Northern Illinois University, who has conducted research on retention policies in California, takes that idea one step further. With longer school seasons, the subjects could be broken down into specific areas that are taught in, say, six-week units. That way, if a student failed to grasp the unit on long division, only that unit would need repeating -- and then the student would return to his own age group.
''Retention generally is not helpful to a kid's progress,'' he says. Why, he asks, would repeating the same material with the same teacher lead to a different outcome?
But whatever directions the debate over social promotion versus retention may take, educators seem certain of this: without early remedial help and a consistent advocate -- a teacher, a tutor, a determined parent -- failing children will fall farther and farther behind. Then they will lose interest.
JUST before Thanksgiving the mood inside the Bondses' apartment was tense. It was report card day. Ms. Bonds was waiting to take Paige to school to find out how she was doing. Paige looked edgy. So did her mother. They had been here before. Ms. Bonds told her daughter that poor grades would mean no more pompom squad.
''I think she's real worried about getting an F,'' Ms. Bonds confided. ''I don't know what the special education teacher can grade them based on anyway. The teacher hasn't been there long enough.''
When Paige entered the living room, she referred to her class, for the benefit of a visitor, as ''only for special students.''
Her mother snapped.
''You aren't special, baby,'' she said. ''Listen to me, I don't want you to feel that way. I don't want you to be in that classroom. The reason you're there is because I got you tested and I'm sorry I ever did it. That's the only reason. Do you hear me?''
Ms. Bonds says she is trying to figure out how to pull Paige from this class. She wondered if she could undo the testing, have it withdrawn. ''They're just not teaching her anything,'' she said. ''I want some solution that's going to help this whole problem, but I just don't know what it is.''
At school, Ms. Bonds was given the grade report written by Ms. Stern-Barnett. Paige got a C minus. The teacher wrote: ''Paige is making steady progress at this time. I know she likes to read at home but she is reluctant to read at school. She needs to continue practicing her times tables. She is confident with one-digit multiplication and needs to move into two-digit multiplication. Paige wants to please and is kind and cooperative.''
Ms. Bonds was irate. The words were kind, but how could this teacher, who had only taught her daughter for several weeks, know enough to give her a C minus? There had been almost no tests or homework, she said. Ms. Bonds complained loudly to Lucille Denmark, the principal, who, in turn, agreed to give Paige a blank report card, saying that she would not have a grade until more was known about her progress. Outside the school, Ms. Bonds stopped. Paige watched her and said little.
''A blank report card?'' Ms. Bonds said. ''What am I supposed to do with this? What does it even mean? How does this help anything?''
Asked whether she would rather go back to her old school, Paige shrugged. Would she rather stay put, then? She shrugged again. ''I've got no friends at this school,'' she said.
In December, Paige quit the pompom squad. She told her mother only that it was not fun anymore. Ms. Stern-Barnett, too, resigned, leaving a substitute in charge of Paige's class.
Monica Davey is a national correspondent for The Times based in Chicago.