Making the grade

August 29, 2002

IT TAKES MUSCLE to change a failure into a success story: Ask the Baltimore City school leaders who have held back 20,000 students this fall.

After three years of inching along toward necessary but unpopular retention policies and processes, school officials are finally moving the mountain, and they deserve recognition for halting social promotion. A quarter of the city's elementary and middle school children will be held back. The sheer size of the population in need of continued remediation is breathtaking, with implications for classroom management, school organization and staffing at schools across the city.

The next step for the school system is steering the repeaters into classrooms where the right materials, teachers and support systems are waiting to ensure that the cycle of failure is broken. It means re-examining and directing aid to schools that have produced large numbers of low-achieving students. It means tracking children who need help most. And it means some classes moving ahead should be better positioned to keep a pace of achievement, as their slowest members have been removed.

Ending social promotion will not cure what ails city schools, but significantly, it will put many other reforms into perspective. In another era, it might have been easy to assume that failing students weren't doing homework and lacked parental direction. But the number of students held back suggests that the schools still have reforming to do: This summer, the school system also announced that 30,000 of its children were attending schools classified as "failing." And many of those children were unable to get enough help in summer school to advance a grade. They may already have been passed along too many times, needs unmet.

What happens in the classroom this year will make the difference between another year of failure and a breakthrough for the students who have been held back.

At the same time, there is no denying that support from parents and other family members, nonprofit groups and Baltimore's business community will be necessary to help this large population make the grade. Will some fall by the wayside, or drop out at the first opportunity? Certainly, but for how many others will this be a fresh start?

Repeating a grade this fall should not be seen as the creation of a stigma, but as the opportunity to help erase one.

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