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D-2 floats plan to hold back 3rd graders who can't read

January 18, 2011

Third graders in Harrison School District 2  who can’t read would not be promoted to fourth grade under a draft plan unveiled Tuesday.

The idea, controversial but gaining interest as education experts across the country focus on remaking public education, is part of a five-year plan discussed Tuesday at a board retreat at the Cheyenne Mountain conference center.

The issue student promotion without achievement is just one item on a 12-page list of goals that focus on creating a college and career ready culturein D-2. More than 70 percent of the district’s 11,147 students are low income and many are at risk of dropping out.

“If we thought the last five years were difficult. This will be tough, too. We aren’t going to rest on our laurels,” said Superintendent Mike Miles.

District officials have operated under a philosophy that all children can learn. Making sure kids can read so that they have success later is part of that.

In recent years, the district has narrowed the achievement gap in reading compared to the state average but there is much left to do.

That D-2  would tackle the automatic promotion problem that most districts have ignored, should be no surprise, said Board President Deborah Hendrix.

“There is research that shows if kids can’t read by third grade, they have a very difficult time catching up,” she said.

Reading skills become essential for all subjects after third grade, so students who can’t read aren’t learning and quickly fall behind, studies show.

Miles said holding kids back a grade can be a touchy subject for students and parents, and most districts have not addressed the issue.

“We have a lot of community conversations to do,” he said, adding that it would take a couple of years to implement after the board approves the plan.

They are researching how it could be done for the greatest benefit to students. Solutions could include: revising and extending summer school, providing more tutoring, creating literacy certificates for new K-3 teachers, guaranteeing those students who are behind an effective teacher.

Miles and the board have been working to turn around the once chronically under performing district. The district has succeeded in getting off state academic probation, and test scores are higher.

But the struggle has brought picketing at contentious board meeting over some new programs, including the pay for performance system that compensates teachers on how well their students perform.

Among the 12 pages of goals in the draft five-year plan:

• Require extra classes for freshmen and sophomores who are not proficient in reading, writing or math, based on CSAPs and other measurements.

• Create an academic bootcamp for new K-3 teachers.

• Increase graduation rates from 70 percent to 90 percent.

• See that 70 percent of students graduate college or career ready without need for remediation.  

• Help pay for the first year of college tuition and books, up to $5,000, for every student who earns a diploma.

• Differentiate diplomas into honors, college and career ready, or basic.

• Revamp Panorama Middle School into a college-bound school by next year.

• Expand the early teacher recruitment program with colleges, work with Teach for America; develop an apprentice program, hire a pool of permanent substitutes; hire a team of strong teacher reserves.

Miles emphasized that the work won’t stop at the schoolhouse door. The district plans to develop a community-wide campaign to create a climate of “academic privilege.”  

“Academic privilege is more important than socioeconomic privilege and is not tied to income,” Miles said.  

That would include ensuring students attend school and get to school on time, have a place to do homework at home and have parents read age-appropriate material to kids. The district also would engage the community to raise money for scholarships and internships and to pay for such things as college readiness tests.

The board did not vote on the draft plan, but the four members attending – Hendrix, Richard Price, Linda Pugh and Keith Varney – gave an informal thumbs up to the plan. A vote has not been scheduled.

Miles noted that this time of year students in districts in higher income areas are talking about which colleges they are going to attend.

“We have students and kids who don’t yet have the dream of college,” he said. “We are going to change that.”

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