When Plainedge Schools Superintendent Gene Grasso and the school board revised its policy on grade promotion and retention, they didn't just institute a new policy. According to them, they made the first step in a major transformation that is about to take place in the Plainedge district over the next few years.
No longer will the Plainedge school district recommend the promotion of students who haven't met certain academic standards for the sake of keeping them with their class. In August, the school board revised its policy on promotion and retention to call for heavier emphasis on academic achievement and student accountability. Although Grasso predicts it will take years to phase-in the policy throughout the schools, students who fail to meet set academic standards and other criteria will not be promoted to the next grade. Packard Middle School will be the first to begin implementation of the new policy.
While it may sound like a return to the ways of yesteryear, where students simply got left back for failing classes, the approach to be used by Plainedge will be substantially different. Students who are not promoted will not be left back, but placed in alternative programs geared toward addressing their deficiencies. The programs will be developed by site-based decision making teams consisting of school administrators, parents and teachers.
Grasso and the school board presented the new policy to a handful of parents who attended the board/community dialogue meeting held at the district office at Plainedge High School Sept. 15. In order to help people understand the change, Grasso presented both the old and new policy to the parents.
The old policy entitled Promotion and Retention stated that students would be promoted "in a continuous pattern of achievement and growth that is in harmony with his/her own development as measured by proficiency standards." It also said that the board would take into account that "the personal, social, physical and educational growth of children will vary" when determining the most appropriate setting for a child. The policy suggests that personal, social and physical factors should be considered just as heavily as academic achievements when considering the promotion of a child.
According to Grasso, the old policy was developed out of the theory that holding a child back would damage his or her self-esteem and the policy created an environment where teachers were encouraged to promote failing students. The problem with this train of thought, he said, is that students are not being held accountable and they learn that they don't have to work hard to be promoted.
"If you socially promote kids and they have no accountability, you can have the best teachers in the world and the kids won't perform," Grasso said, adding that taking the path of least resistance seems to be human nature. "The entire school system of Plainedge is now structured to support that old policy and its been going on all over the country."
The revised policy entitled Promotion/Non-promotion reads as follows:
"The Plainedge Board of Education places heavy emphasis on the preparation of students for meeting the highest academic standards. It is the responsibility of the students to apply consistent and sustained effort toward learning. Promotions from grade to grade should be based on the attainment of the academic standards for that grade level and a consideration of the best interests of the student concerned.
"Should a student not be recommended for promotion, the parent/guardian shall be informed of progress throughout the review process and shall be provided a conference prior to the final decision being made. Academic achievement, emotional and social maturity, and other factors will be carefully considered when individual students are not recommended for promotion. The final decision on non-promotion or promotion shall be made by the building principal."
During the board/community dialogue, Grasso pointed to the Kennewick School District in Washington State as an example of how the policy would work. Kennewick won a national award for its policy which it adopted about four years ago. According to Grasso, the district created a combination of programs to support its policy entitled "Accountability." The programs included a summer school program which parents were required to pay for and students were required to achieve 80 percent mastery of the course work to pass.
Although requiring students to pay for summer school is illegal in New York state, Grasso said it was one of many alternatives to both retention and indiscriminately promoting underachievers.
Another option used by Kennewick was having a grade 8 1/2 to support those kids who had not met the eighth grade standards. Although, those students don't repeat the entire eigth grade curriculum, which Grasso noted would probably not be productive, they would not progress to grade nine until they mastered eight and a half.
The Kennewick district also created an alternative school for non-promoted students. According to Grasso, the school is "not a safe haven" for students and there is a limit to how long a student can remain in it."
Grasso said Kennewick and other school districts adopting similar policies only serve as examples for what can be done in Plainedge. The Plainedge district has its own planning team consisting of parents and teachers who will determine what programs would best suit the district's students.
According to Grasso, another important component to the implementation of the policy will be to develop a standard set of criteria for determining promotion which is "data driven." Using the Kennewick district as an example, he described a system where students who have three point deductions out of five critical points will not be recommended for promotion. In Kennewick, excessive absences, discipline referrals and doing poorly on standardized tests are each equal to one point deductions. Meanwhile, academic courses equal two points, while failing classes such as physical education and art may only carry one point deductions.
Grasso stated that the importance of having a strict data-driven guideline for determination of promotion is that it takes the subjectivity out of the decision making process. Parents, he said, would often refute a teacher's decision not to promote if it were based solely on teacher's grades.
Despite the enthusiasm and determination of the board, Grasso expects opposition from many community members who won't agree with the new policy. He also anticipates that there will be many "nonbelievers," who don't believe that the school will not recommend promotion when a child is not meeting its standards.
Although the majority of parents who spoke at the meeting were in favor of it, many had concerns. More than one parent criticized the policy for not mentioning teacher accountability, while heavily emphasizing the accountability and responsibilities of the student.
Grasso countered that teacher accountability is covered in other district policies and teacher performance is constantly being worked on and studied in the state and locally.
"Education is a three-legged stool: parents, teachers and students," he added. "You can't just keep making one leg stronger and not touch the other two."
One parent, Nancy Hanrahan, said that although she supports making students more accountable, she is concerned that there won't be enough money in the budget to support the programs needed to implement the policy.
Still, many questions on the specifics of its implementation are left unanswered. Grasso said setting the policy was only the first step. Developing programs, budgeting and getting the support of everyone involved will take years and a great deal of planning, according to the superintendent.
"It's a cultural change," he said, adding that the policy not only calls for a change in routine, but a change in the way parents, teachers and students think.
Although opposition to the policy is expected, school board members are urging parents to support it.
Board Vice-President Rhona Vitagliano agreed with the superintendent that promoting a failing student works to that students' disadvantage in the long run.
"Sooner or later it catches up with our students where the responsibility begins and ends with them," she said. "What we're trying to do is make the transition for them so when they go off to college they know how to dig deep within themselves. They will be their own resource. This may be scary but the old way doesn't work anymore."
Grasso added that promoting students who are not meeting the standards also sends the message to high-achieving students that hard work and success are not important as well and he said, that's not a message the district should be sending children.