Thursday, July 17, 2008

Holding Back Young Students: Is Program a Gift or a Stigma?

Published: June 25, 2008

Christopher Julien, 7, was one of 14 first graders in the Gift of Time program at Hempstead Elementary in Spring Valley, N.Y.

SPRING VALLEY, N.Y. — With the increasing emphasis on standardized testing over the past decade, large urban school systems have famously declared an end to so-called social promotion among youngsters lacking basic skills. Last year, New York flunked 6 percent of its first graders, and Chicago 7.7 percent.

Now the 8,400-student East Ramapo school district in this verdant stretch west of the Palisades is going further, having revived a controversial retention practice widely denounced in the 1980s to not only hold back nearly 12 percent of its first graders this spring but to segregate them in a separate classroom come fall.

The special classes, which are limited to 15 students and follow a pared-down curriculum of reading, writing and arithmetic, are called the Gift of Time and come with extras like tutoring and field trips to a local farm.

School officials say that adding resources — about $2,000 per child, in a district whose average general-education spending per pupil is about $13,000 — and tailoring the lessons for low-performers works. Nearly 80 percent of the 54 first graders and 47 second graders in Gift of Time classes this past school year now read at grade level (although they are, of course, a year behind their age group); at least 30 percent of the younger group and 11 percent of the older group are above grade level, according to district evaluations performed last month.

Iraida Hada, the principal of Hempstead Elementary here, said that merely holding back students without a special program to address their needs would not have been as effective.

“How are we going to make it work the second time around, if it didn’t work the first time?” asked Mrs. Hada, whose school was one of five in the district that inaugurated the program this year. “What are we going to do for them? What are we going to change? I believe this program has afforded them another opportunity.”

But some parents have greeted the idea with skepticism, and many education experts say it doubly stigmatizes vulnerable children by combining two practices widely discredited by research: retention and tracking low-achievers.

“This is very worrisome,” said Jay Heubert, a professor of law and education at Teachers College at Columbia University, arguing that both holding back students and separating them can lower self-esteem and academic achievement, increasing the likelihood of dropouts.

Michelle Brown, 34, a certified nursing assistant, fought unsuccessfully to keep her son, Nallehc, out of the program this year for fear that he would be picked on — which he was.

“We believe that for you to have to repeat first grade, it means that you are not capable, you are a dunce child,” Ms. Brown said. “It was bad enough to repeat, and then to repeat in a Gift of Time class. I thought it was a polite way of saying he’s a special-needs child.”

The concept, often called transition classes, was tried in kindergarten in thousands of schools — including East Ramapo’s — in the 1970s and ’80s. Lorrie Shepard, dean of the School of Education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said such programs were generally abandoned after students failed to show significant academic gains and often developed a worse attitude toward school.

“Kids as young as kindergarten were aware that they were being held back and that what they were doing wasn’t normal,” Dr. Shepard said.

But with the federal No Child Left Behind law and a battery of state mandates increasing pressure on schools to raise test scores, efforts to end the longtime practice of promoting children based on age rather than achievement have taken on new urgency. Districts in Milford, Del., and Lakeland, Fla., are among a handful nationwide that have been experimenting with transition classes in recent years, though both dropped them in the face of parental resistance and, in Florida, concerns among teachers.

“I had a hard time putting just the low-achieving kids together,” said Betty Fitzgerald, principal of Lakeland’s Churchwell Elementary, which ran a separate class for repeating third graders for two years in response to tougher state standards. “It’s like saying, ‘You all are low kids, and you all didn’t pass.’ ”

(The Delaware schools scrapped the retention piece: low-performing kindergarteners are promoted, but grouped in a first-grade class that emphasizes basic skills)

Supporters of the separate classes say they give struggling students a chance to learn at their own pace rather than setting them up for future failure by shoe-horning them into a uniform timetable. Since the 1970s, several schools scattered around New Hampshire have placed kindergarteners in what they call readiness classes for up to a year before starting first grade; the classes are usually smaller and promote social development as much as academics.

“I feel it raises the academic bar in the entire school,” said Dillard E. Collins, principal of an elementary school in Hampstead, N.H., who enrolled his own son in a readiness class in nearby Nashua in the 1980s. “If all the children are ready to go, it’s like moving the starting line up.”

Here in Rockland County, the East Ramapo district serves a mostly poor and minority student population: nearly three-quarters qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program; about 56 percent of the overall public school enrollment is black, 25 percent Hispanic and 7 percent Asian.

District officials said they revived Gift of Time classes to address a widening gap in the vocabulary and other skills of the youngest children. Similarly, the district began requiring full-day kindergarten last year for the bottom one-fifth of students.

Dr. Mitchell J. Schwartz, a psychologist who retired this spring as the district’s superintendent, said East Ramapo had similarly tried separate classes in the 1980s to address an achievement gap between boys and girls (boys were behind). He said those classes, also called Gift of Time, were successful but were eliminated after several years for financial reasons.

East Ramapo spent $200,000 on the program this year, buying new class materials and training teachers. That amounts to about 15 percent more per student than the district typically spends, according to state records. In the fall, only the first-grade classes will continue — district officials said that holding first graders back last year meant there were few second graders needing to repeat — saving the district $100,000.

Stripped of required social studies and science lessons, Gift of Time classes give teachers extra time to focus on basic skills, allowing them to spend several days on a single topic if needed. A reading specialist works with the students every day, and a speech therapist comes in every other week.

Gift of Time students rejoin other first and second graders for lunch and recess. Come fall, they will be reintegrated into regular classrooms, now a grade behind the other children in their age group.

At Hempstead Elementary, off a pastel green and blue hallway leading to all seven first-grade classrooms, the Gift of Time class looks like an SAT war room, with charts on reading comprehension and narrative writing plastered to the cinderblock walls and overflowing onto the window shades.

Ericka Quiñones, the teacher, said that most of the eight girls and six boys were not only barely reading when they arrived in her classroom but were so disengaged and unsure of their abilities that they would stare back blankly when she asked questions. So Ms. Quiñones started calling on students; one girl responded by saying that she had not raised her hand.

All 14 students now read at least at grade level, according to last month’s district evaluation. Nallehc Brown, 7, is one of four who are reading above grade level.

Nallehc said that at first, he did not want to be in the class because his friends told him it was “a baby class, and I felt bad.” But he said that that he had made new friends and did not feel as self-conscious now.

His mother said that she still did not like the name Gift of Time — in her neighborhood, it’s known as the “special-needs class” — but that “a lot of the fears I had at the beginning have disappeared.”

Several parents interviewed last week said that their children had probably learned more because they had been segregated from the younger students. Rose Julien, 43, who works in an accounting office, said that her 7-year-old twins often talked about being in second grade, as though they have forgotten they are repeating first.

“If they were in a regular first grade, they’d feel like they don’t belong there,” she said. “That would frustrate them.”

Sharaya Lakes, 26, a stay-at-home mother of six, said the Gift of Time class had not only helped her son, Zy-Air, learn to read, but also boosted his self-confidence; he talks constantly about a girl in the class. At first, Ms. Lakes had cried because she felt as if she had failed Zy-Air when he had to repeat first grade, and worried about how he would fit in with the other children who had been held back. But in the end, there were some positives in the experience.

“They all help each other,” she said. “They made friends out of this program, too.”

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