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Nineteen failing students promoted

The School Board votes 4-1 to move the fourth-graders along. Several are being considered for special-education classes.

By ROBERT KING

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 7, 2001


BROOKSVILLE -- With less gnashing of teeth than before, the School Board completed its annual foray into the social promotion controversy Tuesday by promoting 19 fourth-graders who finished the school year with failing grades.

For a variety of reasons, elementary school principals recommended the students for promotion. Several are being considered for special-education classes. For them, their struggles relate to disabilities that only recently have been diagnosed.

Several have been retained before, some more than once. Since it hasn't helped, the schools have decided to try a new approach at a higher grade level.

In any case, school officials say "social promotion" -- advancing children to a higher grade for non-academic reasons such as age -- appears to be on the decline. Still, state and local officials had no statistics Wednesday to show that.

What is clear is that, after two years of steep splits on the issue, the School Board voted 4-1 to grant retention exemptions to the 19 students in question. Robert Wiggins had the lone "no" vote.

For three years, state law has required school boards to review the retention exemptions of fourth-graders. In many districts, boards have simply approved school staff recommendations. But in Hernando County it has meant something else.

Two years ago, when the state wanted boards to consider retention exemptions for all elementary students, some board members reviewed the cumulative folders of 187 students in search of clues as to how to vote.

The process was simplified somewhat last year, when only six fourth-graders were given retention exemptions. And board members say the sheets principals give them that summarize the reasons for the exemption requests have made the process easier.

Many educators say research shows that students are more likely to eventually drop out if they are held back early on. Promoted students with failing grades, though not preferable, is done in hopes that students might do better in school as they mature and get special assistance.

Critics say such free passes, if given haphazardly, load classrooms with kids who aren't ready to be there and force teachers to water down their lessons. And they say that kids who struggle probably would drop out anyway.

Elaine Wooten, the district's elementary curriculum specialist, said attention the state and the School Board have given to social promotion has forced schools to collect more data on students they want exempt from retention.

Still, she said some decisions -- such as retaining a former honor student who began failing classes after the death of his father -- can't be made in a statistical vacuum.

Deltona Elementary principal Janet Dunleavy said schools are testing students more now and putting down more data when it comes to making retention decisions. And more children are meeting the state standards in reading, writing and math.

But to some extent, Dunleavy said, that has forced schools to spend less time on science, social studies and Florida history and squeezed out things like teaching kids songs and celebrating holidays -- things that aren't covered on the tests.

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