As the school year ends this week, Ventura County administrators are scrambling to figure out what to do with hundreds of elementary and middle school students educators say are expected to repeat a grade in the fall.
Under a new state law ending the widespread practice of "social promotion," principals cannot advance failing students to the next grade in the 2000-01 school year. The precise number of students who will be held back is not yet available, but educators estimate it will climb into the hundreds countywide.
As they try to determine how many teachers and classrooms will be needed for next year, principals worry the number of retained students could present a space crunch on already crowded campuses.
And despite some help from the state, the new law may also force some districts to dip into general fund budgets to pay for additional resources.
"The money from the state is never enough," said Diane Dempwolf, director of curriculum for the county superintendent of schools office. "I'm sure this is creating a financial burden for some districts."
District administrators will not know how many students will be kept back until they receive final semester grades, achievement test scores and summer school results.
The law, which was passed in 1998, mandates that districts create benchmarks for students to meet. Those benchmarks are expected to be in line with new state standards. The law targeted students in grades two through five, as well as students finishing elementary and middle schools.
Social promotion isn't new. It has gone in and out of fashion for at least 60 years. Expecting children to sink or swim was once pervasive in American schools. But the liberalization of education philosophy, the tightening of local funding and the influx of poor families have left many school districts either unable or unwilling to enforce tough standards.
But the drive to end the practice of promoting students on the basis of age instead of achievement picked up speed in the late '90s as educators and politicians revved up a reform movement with a strong emphasis on student achievement.
Now many administrators agree schools should not promote students who lag behind their classmates academically. But they question if requiring them to repeat a grade is the best solution.
"Retention causes new problems," Dempwolf said. "It's not doing kids any favors. In fact, it's almost dooming them to failure in the future."
Studies have shown students who repeat the same lessons in the same way are more likely to fail again or to drop out of school altogether. So teachers are trying to develop new strategies for teaching those students who don't get it the first time around. The key, they say, is tailoring the curriculum to the students' individual needs.
During the past year, schools have been working with low-performing students to get their grades up so they won't have to repeat a grade.
"What we are trying to do is get these kids up to speed," said Pat Chandler, assistant superintendent for the Ventura Unified School District. "Retention is a last resort."
Last fall, administrators used test scores and grades to identify students who were at-risk of being retained. They informed parents during conferences in October and designed programs to help the students.
Students were invited to participate in homework clubs and tutoring sessions before and after school and on Saturdays. Administrators kept track of the students' progress and continued to contact their parents throughout the year.
Principals say the new law has the attention of parents, many of whom traditionally had not been involved in their children's education.
Students who are failing school often come from families where the parents work two and three jobs or where the parents have mental or substance-abuse problems, counselors say.
" 'Your child is at risk of retention' are powerful words for parents to hear," said Sharon McClain, assistant superintendent for the Ojai Unified School District.
The law has also motivated teachers to spend more time and energy working with students on the verge of failing. Some teachers have expressed worries they will be penalized for holding too many kids back.
Despite educators' efforts to offer extra attention, hundreds of elementary and middle school students are still failing. Many of those are students who refused to attend tutoring sessions, educators say.
Ventura Unified said about 100 students in elementary school and about 40 in middle school are at risk of retention. But rather than repeat a grade, some of the eighth-graders may be placed in continuation schools, where they can get more individual attention, Chandler said.
Simi Valley Unified may retain up to 390 elementary students and three middle school students. The number of middle school students held back next year is expected to grow as the district fully phases in the new law.