Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2007 | A plan originally intended to keep failing San Diego middle schoolers in middle school has instead funneled most into special high school programs.

Under the policy, passed last winter by the San Diego Unified School District, eighth-graders who fail two or more core classes stay in middle school. But the new policy included a big loophole: Parents can refuse to let their kids be held back.

And that’s what most parents did. Only 3 percent of failing eighth-graders were held back this fall. The rest opted for summer school or went straight into freshman “intervention programs” intended to up their grades.

That defeated the point of the policy, said school trustee John de Beck. Through the new rule, de Beck hoped to quash social promotion, the practice of passing failing kids to the next grade despite their low marks. Critics say social promotion results in ill-prepared students who can’t catch up in the next grade.

“It’s imperfect,” de Beck said. “There’s no real retention in it.”

But retention — the practice of holding students back a grade — has fallen in and out of favor with educators over the decades. Many argue that it stigmatizes at-risk students and the bulk of academic studies indicate it fuels dropout rates, as students encounter the same obstacles over and over, and ultimately give up. In San Diego, the issue has been raised, dropped, and raised again, as retention and social promotion cycle in and out of style.

De Beck is firmly in the retention camp.

“I believe in retention,” he said, “because kids have to know that you’re serious about it.”

Other board members were unavailable immediately before a closed session meeting Tuesday for comment. Trustee Shelia Jackson opposed the policy when it passed in January, arguing that schools must first address why students are failing before resorting to retention. She was the only trustee who voted against the rule.

High school intervention programs in San Diego differ widely, according to summaries provided by the school district. Though many emphasize smaller class sizes and grade monitoring, standards vary significantly between high schools. At Mira Mesa High, failing students must attend after-school classes, and at San Diego High they get mandatory tutoring. But La Jolla High lists no specific ways to gauge their progress. And at Hoover High, the intervention program is summarized vaguely as “Teacher, Counselor, Security Asst., Reduce (Number) of Suspensions.”

“We let each high school develop their own program,” said H.J. Green, the district’s executive director of secondary school innovation. “If there’s a common thread, it would be a major emphasis on literacy and math. … But there are no required characteristics or required hours.”

When classes ended in June, 856 eighth-graders had failed two or more core classes — almost 11 percent of the graduating class. They were poorer, less English-proficient and less white than the eighth-graders who passed. Ninety percent were low-income, 63 percent were Latino, and 30 percent were learning English, compared to an eighth-grade graduating class that was 53 percent poor, 41 percent Latino, and 17 percent English-learning.

School staff wasn’t surprised when 97 percent of parents refused to let their kids be held back, Green said. Many of those students were sent to summer school, which was intended to give failing students another way out: If kids passed their failing courses over the summer, they could enroll in ninth grade like any other student. If they still failed a course, students were bound for intervention programs instead.

This week, Deputy Superintendent Geno Flores reported positive feedback on the summer school program from teachers and students. One teacher commented, “Positive for me and my students.”

Yet the program didn’t work for most students. Only 23 percent of the summer schoolers who’d failed multiple eighth grade classes vanquished their Fs and went on to the regular ninth grade. The rest spilled into the intervention programs at their respective high schools. For some, that meant home visits from counselors, special classes, mentoring or even uniforms, which were instituted for at-risk kids at Madison High School.

For other students, intervention seems to have changed little about their school day. Several schools list supposedly-routine practices such as “monitor behavior” and “monitor attendance” as ways to measure failing students’ progress.

The success of those intervention programs, installed for the first time this year, remains to be seen. More than 500 students are currently enrolled in the programs, with significant numbers attending Morse, Clairemont and Lincoln high schools. Green said this year’s program is a test.

“If we had the magic bullet, we’d be using it,” he said. “After this year, we’ll have a better understanding of what the needs are, and what resources we need to counteract what’s happening.”

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