At age 5, bright pupil can't make the grade

June 03, 1999|By Michael Olesker

Now comes Zachary Bush, 5 1/2 years old, a bright lad who can recite the alphabet and count past 60, who "plays well with others," who can zip his own jacket and tie his own shoes, who has a high I.Q. and enjoys using a computer, who scores average or above average in all standardized tests -- and whose parents are taking Zachary's school to court so that he can pass from kindergarten to first grade.

Crazy, no?

Well, no, say the administrators of the Key School, a private, pricey Annapolis-area institution, declaring that they should be the arbiters of all things academic and, if the Bush family doesn't like it, well, they can file suit.

"So that's what we're doing," Edward J. Bush, father of Zachary, was saying this week. "Our last conversation with the school, they said, `If you don't like it, sue us.' So, we are."

At issue here is not just the obvious business of education professionals making the call on passing or failing, says Bush, but the reasoning behind it, and the timing, and the financial and emotional cost.

The reasoning? "He's the youngest in his class," says Connie Camus, attorney for the Bush family. "That's the school's only reason. He's been psychologically tested, he gets good grades, but none of this matters. The school says, `He's the youngest, and this is our decision, and if you don't like it, go to another school.'"

"They said to us, `If you don't like [the decision], why do you want him to go here?' " Edward Bush says. "My response is, I don't always agree with the government, but I'm not ready to go to another country. Academically and socially, he's excelling. All testing says he's ready for first grade. I'm not ready to accept their reasoning."

The timing? Bush and his wife, Paula Bielski, say they met with their son's teacher in March. Despite "extremely positive" remarks about Zach's progress, the teacher "suggested" that they might consider holding him back -- noting that, with a November birthday, he was the youngest in his class.

But it was a strange meeting, the Bushes say in court papers. The teacher, Catherine Clark, mentioned holding Zach back "because of his age" but "in her next breath stated that would not be necessary or wise because then he would be `too old and too big.' Also during that conference, Clark reported that Zach's academic progress was `excellent' and that he faced no academic problems at all."

Yet, on May 3, the "suggestion" to hold him back became a fact. Zach's parents were informed that he would not be permitted to attend first grade next year. Asked if there were any options, the Bushes were told they could "enroll Zach at another school."

"They feel," says attorney Camus, "that their concerns for Zach's feelings were arbitrarily dismissed. And when they've asked for a specific basis on which the decision was made, they received none. And still haven't received one. They feel they were blindsided."

Responding to an article in Monday's Washington Post, Key School Headmaster Ronald Goldblatt issued a statement saying, "There is a very clear principle here, and that is the school's exclusive right to make grade placement decisions in the best interest of the child, according to the professional judgment of our faculty and administration."

Yesterday, a school spokesman said there would be no further comment beyond that statement.

While almost nobody objects to Goldblatt's principle -- obviously, parents rely on trained educators to make the vital academic decisions -- the Bushes' complaints go further.

To be informed this late in the year, they say in their lawsuit, makes it "virtually impossible" to enroll Zach in a comparable school. Also, in a school where first-grade tuition is $10,900, the Bushes had to pay a nonrefundable $2,200 reservation deposit -- before they learned of any misgivings by the school about passing their son.

"I don't have any problem with my son staying back," says Edward Bush, an attorney. "But there should be a reason. Saying he's the youngest makes no sense. Do they make the decision next week because somebody's blond or brunet? All testing says he's ready for the first grade."

Could there be another reason, involving money and class sizes -- too many children signed up for first grade, perhaps? The school won't say, and Edward Bush "would hate to speculate. But that's what we're doing, because we don't know anything else."

And Zach's response to all of this? "He knows that something is going on," his father says. "He knows Connie [Camus] is his lawyer. He knows a lawsuit has been filed, but he doesn't know what it means. And he knows a judge will make a decision about him."

That decision being: Who makes the call on passing or failing?

And: Will Zachary Bush become the youngest first-grader at Key School -- or the oldest kindergartner, bigger than the other kids and infinitely more bored?

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