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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Third grade, as many times as it takes
A state policy says kids won't advance to the fourth grade until they're solid readers, as determined by their FCAT results.
By RON MATUS
Published May 8, 2005
MIAMI GARDENS - Darius says he's better at video games. Darren says he is.
Darren says Darius slobbers on the pillow. Darius shakes his head.
Darius nets $21 for a school fundraiser.
Darren pretends to be surprised.
"Dang," he says, before unleashing a little brother's gotcha grin. "I got $28!"
Until this year, there was nothing unusual about the rivalry between the Fortune brothers. But Florida's third-grade retention policy has complicated their relationship.
Darius, 10, should be two grades ahead of Darren, 9, but he has been held back twice - once in second grade with his mother's consent, and once in third grade because he failed the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Now both brothers are in third grade, and Darren won't let Darius forget it.
He "teases him," says grandmother Gloria Fortune. "You know how kids are."
Depending on who you talk to, Darius is either a guinea pig in a reckless experiment or the beneficiary of state-sponsored tough love.
The Florida Board of Education sees retention as a key piece in the puzzle of school improvement. In the long run, retention supporters say, struggling students like Darius will have a better chance of graduating with real skills if they are held back until they become solid readers.
In Florida, they claim success. Recent FCAT results show, on average, that students held back since the policy began in 2003 are getting higher test scores than peers who were promoted. And supporters expect more gains when statewide FCAT scores are released this week.
But whether those gains are good enough is open to debate.
So are the potential tradeoffs.
More and more, retention is being used not only to goose low-performing students, but to nudge the system as a whole.
Supporters say it's no coincidence that Florida third-graders are doing better overall.
"Whenever you have a higher expectation," Education Commissioner John Winn says about the policy, "people rise to that expectation."
Critics say the research doesn't back claims of success. Study after study shows academic growth for retained students flares, then fizzles. Other studies suggest those held back are more likely to become dropouts.
One found that black male students retained in Austin, Texas, were 27 percent more likely to later drop out than their peers with the same economic background and academic achievement levels.
Retention "keeps failing," says Ernest House, an education professor at the University of Colorado who studied New York City's retention policy in the 1980s.
"These are one of the delusions of politicians. They can say, "We're improving education,' but underneath it all, they can say, "We're doing it without spending more money.' "
Florida officials are confident their policy is better.
Here, retained third-graders are required by state law to get extra help. Teachers pinpoint reading weaknesses, then spend extra time in small-group sessions. There are summer reading camps and after-school help. Some schools even offer tutors.
For twice-retained students, intervention is even more intense.
"It's not your father's retention," says Mary Laura Openshaw, head of Just Read, Florida!, the state's reading program.
University of Chicago professor Melissa Roderick hopes Florida is right. She found painful compromises when she analyzed Chicago's retention policy.
Like Florida, Chicago saw test scores rise and the number of retained kids fall. But Chicago didn't offer much remediation. The result: While Chicago students as a whole have made impressive gains, the 10 percent or so at the bottom struggle more than ever.
"The question is, is the tradeoff worth it?" Roderick says.
She says she doesn't know the answer, but critics do.
They have a term for retained students: sacrificial lambs.
* * *
In many Florida elementary schools, teachers relay stories of 10-year-old third-graders towering over 8-year-old peers. Some joke darkly about a future where boys shave in fifth grade and middle schoolers need parking spaces.
"We have one boy in fourth grade, he's 5 feet 10 and 280 pounds," says Debi Turner, principal of Blanton Elementary School in St. Petersburg. "He's another retainee."
Retention policies have come and gone, as political pendulums swing over the pros and cons of "social promotion." Now, they're resurging.
Chicago jump-started the latest round in 1996, with a test-based policy on third-, sixth- and eighth-graders that was praised by President Bill Clinton. New York City followed suit last year, and a lineup of other districts and states are linking retention to the standardized tests mandated by President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act.
In Florida, 22,500 third-graders are repeating this year because they scored at Level 1, the lowest of five levels, on the reading portion of the FCAT. About 1,300 are in third grade for the third time.
For those snared by it, the retention policy often stings.
Blanton Elementary has three third-time third-graders. Turner said their parents all declined to be interviewed. One mother told Turner she was so embarrassed, she had not told the rest of her family.
Earlier this year, Shore Acres Elementary third-grader Derrion Rich, who had been retained twice, was promoted to fourth grade after teachers determined he was making strides. Next year, the shy, husky St. Petersburg boy will be in fifth grade.
But "I'm still not in my right grade," Derrion says, on the verge of tears.
In January, the state Board of Education began a push to expand retention, asking the Legislature to allow it to phase in the policy to other grades.
But the bill died during the legislative session that ended Friday.
"I don't think right now there's an interest in doing that," says Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, who chairs the House Education Council. "It's like running a hurdle race. You don't need a hurdle every two inches."
* * *
Maybe it was meningitis.
When Darius Fortune was six weeks old, he was hospitalized with the brain-inflaming disease for a week.
Maybe it was day care.
Darius went to a different center than Darren and little sister Zhane, and his siblings both started reading earlier than he did.
Maybe it's mom.
Darius' mother, Aeisha Fortune, works full time as a call-center supervisor, and is studying full time to become a midwife. A single mother, she concedes she doesn't spend enough time helping Darius with his homework.
Fortune, 29, says all those things might explain why Darius is behind in reading.
Then again, she says, maybe his teachers could have taught him better or warned her earlier. Maybe the district or the state should have mandated extra help, instead of waiting for her son to falter.
Last year, the school referred Darius to a tutor at a public library, she says. But she found the tutor at a table, surrounded by a jumble of other kids and unfamiliar with Darius' specific reading problems.
"That's all they can offer you," she says.
Fortune says she couldn't take advantage of other options. Last summer, the school recommended reading camp for Darius, but Fortune says her work prevented her from providing transportation.
Instead, Darius spent the summer with relatives in the West Indies.
Tests show Darius does not have a learning disability. Maybe he "just learns at a slower pace," his mother says.
A couple of months ago, school administrators sent home a warning notice: Darius was at risk of being held back again.
"I can't figure it out," Fortune says as she prepares Sunday supper - spaghetti with meatballs and corn on the cob. "I'm not an educator. I have no idea how to teach him. I can help him with a workbook page. But is that enough?"
The Fortunes live in a tidy apartment, in a neatly landscaped complex the color of flan and olives. In the living room, Darius sits on a super-stuffed sofa, his arms around a pillow. He pulls on the corner of his eyes. His legs bob.
How did he feel about being retained in second grade? Darius shakes his head.
This year? He shrugs.
What if he gets held back again?
"Not good," he says.
Fortune worries her son's self-confidence is eroding, and behavioral problems will creep into the void. She sees trying times ahead in middle school, where cliques tighten.
The big, soft-spoken boy will be an easy target, she fears.
"All the junior highs here, they're tough," says Fortune, herself a product of Miami-area schools. "You can either go one way, or you can go another."
The diploma, or the street.
* * *
Some don't think Florida's retention policy is tough enough.
A recent analysis of FCAT scores by researchers with the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute led them to conclude that perhaps more third-graders should be retained.
The institute compared the tallies of third-graders who scored at the lowest level in reading in 2002 and 2003 to their scores one year later.
The first group was not subject to the retention policy, so most of them were promoted. The second group was subject, so the majority were retained.
The result: On average, students who were retained scored 4 percentile points higher on reading than their peers who were promoted.
On math, they scored almost 10 points higher.
The gains might have been greater, the researchers say, if exemptions had not allowed 26 percent of Level 1 readers in 2003 to be promoted.
But are those gains good enough?
Last year, according to Department of Education figures, 59 percent of retained students scored Level 2 or above on the FCAT, meaning they passed the threshold for retention.
But Level 3 is considered grade level.
By that measure, 55 percent of retained students failed the FCAT again.
* * *
St. Petersburg's Jamerson Elementary is a spanking-new school across the street from boarded-up houses. A sign taped up in the lobby offers what might as well be the school motto: "The good life for our children can be secured only if good life is also secured for all other people's children."
In a skills lab, Andrea Cate Fuller works with four twice-retained third-graders.
"Stop. Nice," the reading specialist tells a short boy in a sporty jumpsuit. He has just read a series of sentences as fast as he can. "Two mistakes. You know what they were?"
Florida requires "intensive interventions" for third-graders who are held back. Summer reading camps are part of that strategy. So is more reading instruction, more monitoring and parental notification. So is an improvement plan that spells out a student's shortcomings and the potential remedies.
Intervention is beefed up even more for students held back a second time.
The students at Jamerson spend 90 minutes a day with Fuller. They take turns sitting with her, while the rest do reading exercises on computers.
While Fuller holds a stop watch, a beefy boy with untied shoes and Sean John shirt flies through a reading passage. He fires the words staccato, with steady pace but no rhythm.