Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Another year?

As the year ended my partner-in-crime and I mulled over our children's test scores. For the most part, the ones we knew would need an extra year proved that in their end of year testing, and the ones ready to move on showed that as well. We'd met with most parents to discuss the possibility of having their child repeat kindergarten, and most had agreed, although some did so reluctantly.

Deciding to have a child stay behind is always tricky. We have to consider their English language skills, how much they grew over the past year, and whether or not another year of kindergarten will be beneficial. Did they begin kindergarten this year having no experience with English, or with the world outside of their apartment? Was their first year in our school more sitting back and observing? Will they be more engaged learners if they stay behind?

To be honest, I usually lean to the side of "another year can't hurt anyone". My aunt, a middle-school math teacher, had her son spend two years in kindergarten on account of her experience with middle school boys. She'd found that they were too immature to handle the middle school work load, and would do best if were allowed time to mature. My cousin, who spent 2 years in kindergarten, finished his law degree at a prestigious law school and is now working in a law firm in New York City. She clearly made a wise choice.

Not all parents see it this way. Many see it as a red flag that their child is a failure. Particularly those parents who are accustom to the South American school systems that have no problem holding a child back year after year in the same grade. These children enter our school at least 2-3 years in a grade behind where they should be, which does not benefit anyone. These parents seem extremely concerned with how their community and family will view their child, and seem to feel that once their family learns their child was retained their child will be written off as "stupid". Sometimes they come to us with another parent whose child is moving on to first grade, but whose child is in the special education program. "This child is smarter than this one, but he's going on and he's not!" both mothers will agree, and we try to explain that children in the special education program do not usually repeat a grade.

This year I finished up my third year with two first graders- both had repeated kindergarten. It was wonderful to be able to stay with their families as their children flourished in their second year of kindergarten and went on to do great things in first grade. There is nothing like sitting down with a parent and saying, "As you know, when we first started working with your child we were very concerned about x, y, and z. You and your child have worked so hard, both in school and out, and now we are amazed at how much x, y, and z have improved." Those are some of my favorite conversations on the job.

This year my partner-in-crime and I thought we knew in December of a little one who would need to be retained. I've written about her before here and here, and how it took her from August to March to learn all of the letters in her name. We were extremely concerned about her, and started the discussions for retention in December so that her parents would understand it was a possibility when the time came. She's an amazing child and we were actually thrilled to have her for another year. Then we looked at her end of year test scores. In March something clicked, and she, well, bloomed. She rocked her end of year assessments. We stood, pouring over her test pages, sadly realizing there was no way we could retain her. She was a rock star who would have to go on to first grade. (Clearly we were happy for her, but, oh, the sadness in knowing she was no longer ours!)

Then we started to examine another child's test scores and found ourselves truly stumped at what to recommend to the parent. She'd made significant progress this year, and she also has a disability that limits her cognitive and physical abilities. Her preschool teachers felt she would be lucky to identify the letters in her name by the end of kindergarten, which she mastered very early in the year. In many ways she had a successful kindergarten year.

Typically we do not hold children back if they are in the special education program, so technically we should not have given this little one another thought. But something felt wrong about sending her to first grade. She is so smart and so capable that sending her to first grade seemed to be sentencing her to a lifetime of being behind her peers, of always being in the lower reading groups, needing extra help, of never reading on grade level. Yet another year of kindergarten could firm up those essential skills she needs, and is capable of having, to bring herself up to grade level. She would then go on to first grade with a firm foundation to build on, allowing her to continue working at grade level. It was because we had so much faith in her as a learner, and because we had such high expectations with her, that we wondering if another year would benefit her more than moving on to stay with her same-age peers.

Every morning we'd decide something different. One day I was adamant that she needed to stay behind. The next I was sure that sending her on was the right choice. Every angle I examined made me change my mind.

So, finally, we sat down with her parent and had a very honest conversation. It was amazing to have a conversation with a parent that was so open and honest. We were not trying to convince her of anything, we were merely trying to give her as much information as possible to allow her to make an informed decision. We walked her through what developmentally appropriate reading and math skills were essential to be successful in kindergarten and first grade. We looked at her child's progress and examined possibility that aspects of her disability were holding her back from reaching these essential skills. We discussed the first grade curriculum and how not having these building blocks would impede her. We went over the Least Restrictive Environment in her IEP and discussed how we promised to keep her with her same-age peers, but that asking her to stay back another year would not do this. We looked at her emotional development and analyzed how she would react to each situation.

In the end I think both my-partner-in-crime and I felt good about the conference. We'd presented as much information as we could. The mother promised to think about it and decide. In the end she decided she wanted her child to go on. I still don't know if this is the right decision, but I feel good that we gave mom as much information as we could to let her make the final decision for her daughter, who she knows better than we do.


Jenny said...

Retention is an issue I don't feel like I understand at all. Last year I had a couple of darlings, one who had repeated kindergarten and one who was repeating first grade. I think it was great for both of them.

I wonder about the long-term effects. Have you ever looked at these kids in fourth or fifth grade to see how they are doing? It would be interesting to see what happens beyond first grade.

luckeyfrog said...

I think it sounds like you have the right idea about retention. It's a careful decision every time, considering lots of characteristics, and I think you did a wonderful job of explaining such a sensitive issue.

One you didn't mention was physical maturity. I know at our school, the teachers try to consider whether that child will physically fit in. One boy considered for retention is small for his age and wouldn't look at all out of place in the same grade next year, which we think would make for a gentler transition.

One of the things we talked about, too, was really looking at WHY a student wasn't learning. For one girl, she struggled and struggled until, near the end of the year, she lived with a different family member. She was instantly making incredible strides, and the teachers knew that if she had another year of kindergarten with a different home life, she'd pick up so much more. Like you said- you have to consider whether things will for sure be different and better the next time around.