The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Retaining a Perspective on Retention

on March 20, 2016

Today I am posting the second part of my argument about retention with a true story that I was involved in when I was a principal in rural Oregon. I assure you that I have not distorted the  facts in any way.  However, I must explain that we were a small school district with only two schools.  Our teachers and I knew each other and most students very well.  And, as the sole administrator for both schools I had the power and the funds to make adjustments in students’ programs without asking permission from our School Board.

In the schools where I am principal the decision to retain children in the curret grade is made by the Teacher Assistance Team (TAT). But in Tommy’s case, the TAT could not make a decision.

Tommy came to us in mid-year as a 5th grader from a city school where he had been in a self-contained class for emotionally disturbed children. Previously, he had spent four years at a residential treatment center where he both lived and went to school. When his mother regained custody and Tommy was allowed to live at home, she wanted him in a regular classroom in a public school. We had one week to get ready before Tommy’s arrival.

After reading Tommy’s thick file, we were all frightened. Especially concerned was his new classroom teacher, who already had 27 kids, some with their own problems. But we made a plan, hired an aide, cleared a storeroom as a “quiet place,” for Tommy when he got out of hand and waited for him to make his entrance.

Tommy was never as bad as advertised. He was a smart kid who may have realized that here was a chance at normalcy that hadn’t been offered to him before and was not likely to come again. Sure, his attention wandered—along with his feet—in the classroom, and he did get into some arguments on the playground, but after a few weeks we realized that he did not need the aide or the “quiet place.” Academically, Tommy made progress. By the end of the school year, he was almost up to grade level in reading and language arts and about a year behind in math. Should we promote him?

Actually, the question never hinged on academics. Our curriculum, teaching methods, and classroom structures were flexible enough to accommodate students with deficiencies far more serious than Tommy’s. The TAT was concerned about whether Tommy’s level of social and emotional maturity would allow him to make a satisfactory adjustment to the demands of middle school.

In the middle school building he would have to get himself from room to room on time, adapt to the personalities and styles of several different teachers, go without morning and afternoon recesses, and be in charge of his own assignments. Although he had formed a strong bond with his 5th grade teacher, he was not close close to his classmates. His playground companions were two and three years younger than he, and they would be staying behind at the elementary school. Wouldn’t it be better for Tommy to spend another year in an environment that had proved beneficial for him? Maybe.

On the other side of the coin was the fact that using the definitions provided by state and federal laws for the education of handicapped children, we could provide an “appropriate education” in the “least restrictive environment” by sending him on to middle school. Tommy would be academically grouped with other regular students in his grade. An aide would be available to help him get to classes on time and to get his assignments straight. Teachers were willing to modify their expectations and methods to suit his needs.

After talking through all the arguments, the TAT and the Middle School Council were still undecided. It was not just a matter of divided opinion; individuals in both groups leaned one way, then the other, and then back again. Finally, we decided that the critical issue was Tommy’s view of what was happening. With a child who had already been so battered by circumstances, would retention be seen as the ultimate blow, just another minor setback, a welcome opportunity to stay in a safe place, or a non-event? To find out, we set a conference for Tommy and his family with the school counselor who had been working with him and had gained his trust.

Surprisingly, the conference was a short one. As the counselor reported it to me afterward, mother and stepfather were sure what was best and got right to the point: Tommy should stay in 5th grade because he wasn’t ready for 6th. Both of them had been held back in grade school, and they believed it hadn’t done them any harm. Tommy was equally sure: he wanted to go on to middle school with “his” class.

The counselor pointed out to Tommy that he had had some problems in staying on task and getting along with other people. Tommy acknowledged that this was true, but he was ready to try harder. He did not argue with his mother or stepfather; he understood that the deal was between him and the school. The counselor did not argue either. Was there anything else that Tommy would like him to tell the principal before she made her decision? “Yes,” said Tommy, “Tell her `please’ and `thank you.’ ” End of conference. End of dilemma.

Tommy started 6th grade that September with support systems in place. He had a good year in both learning and social matters. In fact, his English teacher gave him the lead role in a school performance because he was self-confident and a good singer. Three years later he graduated from our middle school and went on to a high school in the neighhboring district. Unfortunately, we did not track his performance through those grades, but we did hear that he graduated on time.

Although I am aware of the emotional impact of this little drama—which is all true except for Tommy’s name—that is not why I tell it. Through Tommy’s story I hope to suggest the complex dimensions of all promotion/retention decisions and make clear that each child’s case deserves to be decided on its own merits. I also want to show that retention is not, as most adults believe, simply a matter of giving a slow learner more time to succeed or a recalcitrant one a taste of the real world. To a child, retention is an earthshaking event that shouts to him and everyone in his world that he is not an adequate human being. When a school chooses to retain a child, it should do so not only with fear and trembling, but also with a plan to make things better the second time around so that the terrible verdict it has rendered can be reversed.


One response to “Retaining a Perspective on Retention

  1. Don Bellairs says:

    It is always better not to strip someone of dignity. Every parent wants his/her child to be successful; every parent wants desperately for his/her child to be respected. This is a great story about real education–preparation, cooperation and compassion w/o a word about testing.
    I have seen retention work both ways, so a flexible approach is a good choice. I have seen parents use it to enhance the child’s athletic stature…you keep a seventh grader back and let him grow a year before playing 8th grade ball. Pretty common practice in the South years ago; may still be. And not such poor decision-making, as the upside for athletic virtuosity in our society far exceeds the upside for academic excellence.


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