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Holding Back Students Brings New Problems

Education: Ban on social promotions causes space shortages in early grades--already limited to 20 pupils under class-size reduction program.


Already grappling with overcrowded classrooms and teacher shortages, Ventura County schools are struggling to comply with a new state law barring social promotion--the practice of advancing students despite failing grades.

But keeping students back presents additional problems in the elementary grades, officials said.

Because of the class-size reduction program, schools face financial penalties if classes from kindergarten through third grade exceed 20 students. As a result, principals have added classes, hired more teachers and in some cases, bused students to other schools to make room for those held back.

"Space is always an issue for us, so this just compounded our problems," Connie Sharp, assistant superintendent for Oxnard Elementary School District, said of the statewide policy that became law last year.

Across the county, districts kept back three or four times more students this year than in previous years.

Oxnard Elementary, which serves about 16,000 students, retained 226. Ventura Unified School District, with a student population of 17,300, retained about 220.

"The intent of the legislation is commendable," said Kris Bergstrom, director of curriculum and instruction for the Ventura district. "The logistics, however, are challenging."

The challenges are no different in Conejo and Simi Valley unified school districts in the east county, each with about 20,000 students. Conejo kept back 87 students this year, while Simi Valley held back about 380 students.

Hundreds more students across the county who were at risk of retention improved enough during summer school to be promoted.

To meet the challenge, local school boards were required to draft plans for ending social promotion in grades two through nine.

The new policy is presented as a "big stick," said Richard Simpson, assistant superintendent for Conejo Valley Unified School District. "But along with it came the carrot of a lot of intervention money."

The state Department of Education, which formerly gave districts in California a total of $105 million to identify lagging students and to provide them with academic assistance, has increased the amount.

Ventura County schools received nearly $800,000 last school year to implement intervention programs, said Lily Tsuda, consultant for the state Education Department. That figure did not include money for expanded summer school programs.

Last fall, principals used a combination of grades and test scores to pinpoint the students who needed extra help. They notified parents and offered the students help before and after school and on weekends. The students who were still struggling at the end of the year had to pass intensive summer school programs to move to the next grade.

At Bard Elementary School in Port Hueneme, Principal John Puglisi said he had trouble assigning classrooms this fall, because he didn't know until near the end of summer how many students would be in each grade.

"We're jampacked in all the grades that are class-size reduced," he said. "And the increase in retentions contributed to the log jam."

Puglisi and his teachers also had to complete reams of paperwork and convince some parents that their children were indeed failing.

Administrators also have faced problems finding enough time, energy and staff to make the before- and after-school programs work.

"We have more ideas and more money and more kids to serve than we have teachers available to provide the services," said Robert Fraisse, superintendent of the Hueneme Elementary School District.

Aside from dealing with the logistical hassles, some principals have had to come to grips with their views on holding back students. Pointing to research showing that retention hurts students' self-esteem and leads many to drop out, principals are still trying to use it as a last resort.

At the beginning of last school year, teachers and administrators at Bard Elementary identified 250 students, nearly one-third of the school, who were below grade level. Of those, about 150 attended after-school programs and summer school, and 15 were retained.

"Retention isn't a solution," Puglisi said. "Retention is like the ultimate scarlet letter in the minds of kids."

Puglisi said he and his teachers are doing everything they can to bring up students' grades. When Bard's dismissal bell rang at 2:30 one afternoon last week, dozens of students converged in the cafeteria for a quick snack and then scattered into various classrooms for after-school programs and homework clubs.

In one room, students practiced multiplication tables and math word problems. In a second room, students worked on computers, drilling themselves on phonics and English language skills. And in a third, students looked up vocabulary words in the dictionary and practiced spelling them on the front board.

During one class, called "Power Hour," 11-year-old Vanessa worked on commas, while her 9-year-old brother, Diego, practiced addition and subtraction.

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