Paula Williams: Retaining students is tough decision

Apr. 04, 2013 @ 06:00 PM

Most of the school systems in our area, including Guilford County, have enjoyed spring break this week.  Next week, we get back to the task of finishing another school year with nine busy weeks of teaching and End-of-Grade testing.  Those weeks will also include the discussion of retention for some students.
I was interested to read in Monday’s edition of this newspaper about a bill proposed in the South Carolina legislature that would hold back students still struggling to read by the end of third grade.  It said that the bill “aims to boost children’s chances of success through early intervention.”
In my 21 years of teaching thus far, I have found retention to be a highly personal and individualized decision that must have the full support and backing of parents in order to be successful, and I can name the three students I have been involved in retaining in my 21 years.  Retaining a student, particularly when they are third grade age or older, is a very serious and life-changing decision and not one that can be made with one blanket statement.
My problem with South Carolina’s proposed legislation is that students have had four years of instruction already by the end of third grade, and early intervention should have already begun.  Our schools must strive to do a better job of identifying early on students with learning differences.  Kindergarten teachers know by the second half of the year and first-grade teachers know very early on whether or not a student is learning at an age-appropriate rate.  That is the crucial point at which intervention must take place.
That is one of the reasons we need smaller class sizes and more intervention support in the lower elementary grades, as proposed by Guilford Superintendent Maurice Green’s new budget.  I agree that early intervention is the key to school success, but it must occur long before the end of third grade.
So let’s consider retention.  There are so many questions involved.  Is the student proficient in English?  Does the student have a learning disability?  Are parents supportive of retention?  Will the student be able to make a year’s worth of gains if given another year in a grade?  Is attendance an issue?
You might think that a student who has missed many days of a school year would be the perfect candidate for retention, but it is quite the opposite.  For elementary students, attendance is more of a parent issue and tends to be a pattern from year to year.  Unless the child is moving to a different situation, retention for another year in a grade results in the same pattern of absences and lost opportunities to learn and does not help.
My principal and I had a discussion about retention just last week, and he said research shows a student retained twice in their school career will not achieve the college track of courses in high school and is at much greater risk of dropping out.  We as educators must do all we can to help our students at every grade level achieve success. When students reach third grade and are struggling to read, let’s give them our best efforts to remediate and get them on the path to reading to learn.  But let’s think long and hard about blanket retention at any age wherever we may teach.

Paula Gulledge Williams lives in High Point and teaches at Pilot Elementary School in Greensboro. Her columns appear on this page every other Friday. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.