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Holding students back a grade isseen as last resort

October 16, 2005|By KAREN HANNA

karenh@herald-mail.com

At Bester Elementary School, where 70 students last month were identified as having reading skills more than a year below grade level, only 12 students are repeating a grade this year, Principal Kathy Stiles said.

Washington County Public Schools officials are reluctant to recommend to parents of struggling youngsters that their children repeat more than one year at any given school level, said JoEtta Palkovitz-Brown, executive director of early-childhood and elementary education.

"Retention is not always the best practice," Palkovitz-Brown said.

Retention does not produce the same results as does intervention, Palkovitz-Brown said.

Holding students back a grade level rarely is a solution, Palkovitz-Brown said. Retentions are costly, and they often diminish students' chances at graduation, she said.

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Palkovitz-Brown emphasized that students can exhibit thinking skills - and they can learn - even when they're struggling in certain areas.

For Michelle Talbert-Smith, who is in her first year as special-education case manager at Bester, the decision to hold a student back often comes down to parents' and teachers' personal philosophies. That shouldn't be the case, she said.

"You battle all the time whether to make a retention decision or not to make a retention decision," Talbert-Smith said.

Discussions about retention typically begin in about March or April, but teachers try much earlier to get across the message that the students need extra help, Stiles said.

"Let's just put it this way: They know all year that they're having problems," Stiles said.

According to Stiles, some students who frequently miss school or who are young for their grade levels might benefit from retention. And some students with special needs might be "doing the best that they can do," Stiles said.

In determining whether a student should be retained, Stiles said, teachers and administrators look at previous interventions that have been tried and what special needs the student might have. School staff members work to build consensus with parents whose children are struggling, Stiles said.

At Bester, "several students" with special needs already have been identified as certificate track, meaning they would not qualify as University of Maryland completers, Stiles said.

Completer-track students earn diplomas that are acceptable to the University System of Maryland.

Talbert-Smith compared the situation facing some struggling students to a snowball rolling down a mountain. With early intervention, many students can catch up to their classmates. Once they are behind, though, the deficits seem to grow, Talbert-Smith said.

"When I talk with parents, I always use the analogy of a snowball coming down a mountain," Talbert-Smith said. "The earlier that retention, the better that retention."

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