City warns some pupils

Parents of 12,000 told that promotion could be imperiled

Summer school urged

Action is taken to raise standards across city

June 08, 2000|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Taking a first step to raise passing standards across Baltimore, school officials are urging the parents of 12,000 second- and fourth-graders to send their children to summer school or risk having them held back this fall.

In a letter sent last week to parents of children who had failed a national standardized test, school officials said summer school was not mandatory but strongly recommended to help their children catch up to their peers across the nation.

"This is a major initiative for the school system. And it is a bold move," said Betty Morgan, the chief academic officer.

Until this year, city school students were promoted to the next grade, whether or not they met standards.

The letters brought an immediate response from dozens of parents, who complained to principals and officials at school headquarters that they had not been given enough warning their children were having problems and should go to summer school.

"It is not fair," said SaudiaScott, whose daughter, Maranda, is a second-grader at Leith Walk Elementary School. "My daughter works very, very hard, and for a letter to come home and say she may have to repeat the second grade just doesn't make sense."

Maranda, Scott said, received top grades in all subjects and had perfect attendance. However, she scored just below the cut-off point on the standardized reading test this spring.

Scott said yesterday she hasn't yet told her daughter of the letter, hoping that something will change.

The policy was being changed as late as yesterday, less than three weeks before the start of summer school on June 26.

When the letters went out, parents were told that children would be held back if they were unable to pass the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills for reading.

But yesterday, the school system clarified its position, saying that a principal could consider a child's entire record this year in deciding whether the child should be held back.

"We are not going to be retaining a child just based on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills," Morgan said.

Several city principals and teachers said yesterday they were confused and frustrated by the mixed messages on the new policy that have been arriving on their doorsteps in the past month.

Initially, when the promotion and retention policy was approved last year, the school staff said it would be phased in over the next 18 months. By the fall of 2001, all second- and fourth-graders who weren't reading close to grade level would be held back, they said at the time.

Last summer, the school system implemented the policy on a trial basis in 18 of the city's 120 elementary schools. In those schools, summer school is mandatory this year for any student who did not pass the test.

But the staff said it wanted to proceed slowly elsewhere, so that parents would be given plenty of warning of the policy shift.

A letter from school chief Robert Booker and Morgan went out May 18, telling principals and their supervisors that summer school would not be mandatory for failing students but encouraged. Based on that, principals didn't begin preparing parents or the students who were in danger of being held back.

But then, school board members intervened, according to documents obtained by The Sun. In a June 1 memo to Morgan and administrators, the board said students who didn't pass the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills should be held back as a general rule.

"Teachers must retain any student who scores at or below (the accepted level)," the memo said.

That shift led to the letter being sent out last week to thousands of parents, strongly encouraging summer school and telling parents their children should re-take the test on the last day of summer school - July 28.

Parents were told that students who didn't pass in July would be held back and put in a transitional class. Those who caught up next fall would have yet another chance at promotion.

Morgan conceded there had been mistakes made in the transition to the new policy. "We are fixing the plane in flight," she said. "We are still working on it."

But the seesawing of policy left many parents furious - especially those trying to plan vacations, one official said.

"It seems they are sending some mixed messages to parents," said Edna Greer, principal of Leith Walk Elementary School, where parents of 280 students were sent letters.

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