Flunking a student to help get ahead Howard Co. family insisted youth repeat 8th grade to aid future

August 10, 1998|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

For a teen-ager about to enter his first year of high school, Robert Merriman IV has a few things most students don't.

He has a long-range plan, for one, with everything from his college roommate to his expected profession.

But even less typical, he has two years of eighth grade -- something that his father, Robert III, fought for in court, in the news media and in defiance of the Howard County school system. Today, with no more D's on his report card and ninth grade three weeks away, Robert and his father say he wouldn't have such hope for his future if they hadn't persuaded the school system to flunk him.

"My grades were low and I needed to get them up to get into college," the younger Merriman said last week in an interview at his home in North Laurel. "It didn't create a problem for me, going to eighth grade again. I made a lot of friends and now my grades are better. It was a good idea."

To the Merrimans, the decision to send Robert back to the eighth grade last year was solely a matter of one child's needs. Colleges assess a student based on performance from ninth grade on, and Robert, his father said, lacked the math and science skills to succeed at that level.

But at the core of Robert's situation is a debate among parents and educators over who is best qualified to direct the learning process of children who struggle in school. Robert passed the eighth grade on his first try, and Howard County schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey said afterward that making him repeat it was a bad idea. His father said he knows the child best -- that the school system was wrong.

"It's not always an easy situation," said Jane Schuchardt, a member of the Howard County school board. "The teachers and administrators want to do whatever's in a student's interest, and so do parents. So who's right?"

Both Merrimans say they were right.

Sitting nervously in his living room, wearing baggy jeans and boots, with a hint of a mustache, Robert said he feels no different from any other high school freshman. He is 15 -- a year older than most -- but said he is comfortable among his classmates. He's looking forward to trying out for the basketball team.

Repeating a grade required very little adjustment, Robert said. He moved to a new school even though he stayed in the eighth grade because Murray Hill Middle School opened last year and )) his home was within its zone. Most of his current and former classmates live in or near his Canterbury Riding neighborhood, so he walks or rides his bike to see them regardless of what grade everyone is in, Robert said.

As for the social stigma of being held back a year, Robert and his father said it was minimal. He was teased less about his academic standing than about the newspaper and television coverage of his battle with school officials -- coverage that his father welcomed and even sought.

"Some of them sort of treated him like he was a celebrity," said his father. "But I was just worried about his education and his future. There's no question he was not ready for the ninth grade. He would have failed miserably."

Merriman argued a year ago that his son was caught in a cycle of grade inflation that pushed students through the school system even when they weren't ready. Robert was "barely able to determine the correct change out of three dollars for a Big Mac," Merriman said, yet entering high school meant he would be enrolled in algebra classes. He sued the school system to have his son held back, but withdrew the challenge when administrators acceded to his request.

The school superintendent never agreed with Merriman. He simply acted in deference to Merriman's role as a parent. Hickey would not comment last week, but various school officials said parents can be plying a dangerous course when they supersede the recommendations of professional, career educators.

Schuchardt, who taught in public schools for more than 25 years, thinks parents often know their child's needs best. But she also remembers a student whose parents had her repeat the eighth grade with less satisfactory results. "She was much too mature to relate to and interact with the other students, and she felt shut out," Schuchardt said. "It was a disaster." The student dropped out of high school, she added.

Robert said that won't happen to him. His father, who holds two bachelor's degrees and works as a language specialist for the federal government, is from Virginia Beach, Va., and Robert wants to move there to attend Norfolk State University. He hopes to rent an apartment with his cousin and enter trade school after college, possibly to become a plumber.

"I'm really going to buckle down in high school, because I just love Virginia Beach," he said.

During his first tour of eighth grade, Robert earned C's and D's and failed the Maryland Functional Tests in writing and mathematics, his father said. Last year he earned B's and C's. He passed both standardized tests -- as did more than 90 percent of his classmates.

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