Second of two parts
The woodpecker outside 9-year-old Amanda Powell’s classroom has interrupted her reading for three years running.
She knows, because she’s stayed in the same classroom since first grade.
Amanda’s among the last students at Lake Spokane Elementary School to go through a program education experts say could reduce the number of kids retained, or held back a grade.
It’s called looping and means students have the same teacher for two or more years.
Judy Payne taught Amanda and her classmates in first, second and third grades - so long she’s acquired more photo albums of her flock than a doting grandmother.
“I’d always, as a first-grade teacher, wanted to keep my kids,” says Payne, who has taught for 25 years. “I never felt like I was quite done with them.”
On Friday, she’s finally done. And with her experiment, she’s accomplished her goal of stronger students: Together her kids scored in the country’s top 10 percent on routine assessments.
Even educators who view retention as a necessary evil say there are often better ways to get kids up to speed.
Looping, for instance, gives teachers more time to figure out the needs and learning styles of children who are falling behind. And the kids never have to say, “I should be in third grade, but …”
Widely-quoted studies show retained kids often end up with damaged self-esteem but no long-lasting scholastic gains. And with new academic standards entering the scene in many states, including Washington, educators are scrambling to find other ways to help kids make the grade.
Some recommend multi-age classrooms, or after-school programs, or kindergarten that lasts all day instead of half-days.
Suggestions also include expanded summer schools, one-on-one reading lessons, and special tutoring sessions. Some educators say year-round school would help rescue kids who are lagging behind.
In his book “Retention and Its Prevention” author Jim Grant recommends a return to pre-first classrooms. The classrooms were wiped out in District 81 several years ago, but they’re resurfacing in Coeur d’Alene public schools.
“Pre-first is the best way to negate retention,” Grant says. “It builds in an extra year without failure. Kids are really grounded when they go on to first grade.”
Teachers would appreciate more help in dealing with students who aren’t keeping up with their classes, says Helen Harding, a former pre-first teacher at Spokane’s Linwood Elementary School.
“We did away with retention and the pre-first classrooms, but we didn’t really offer any alternatives.”
“We need to do more,” acknowledges Gary Livingston, Spokane School District 81 superintendent.
Hard on teachers
Amanda’s mom, Tammy Powell, says her daughter was fortunate to land in Payne’s three-year looping class. She credits it with saving Amanda, who was off to a slow start in first grade, Powell said.
“Instead of Mrs. Payne having to start from scratch each year and getting to know her, she knew what reading level and math level they were on.”
Payne says she saved weeks of time every fall because she knew the skill levels of each child in every subject.
“In second grade, I was able to move on with top kids and bring the rest to where I wanted them to be. They’re able to leap and bound a little bit more.”
Now her students, who are outgrowing their small orange and red chairs, are moving on to fourth grade and a new teacher.
Payne’s ready to start another three-year stint with another first-grade class.
But that probably won’t happen, says principal Bob Stanek.
For Payne to stick with one group of kids for three years, two other teachers must do the same so the school has enough teachers at each grade level.
So far, both have bowed out, blaming burnout.
Teacher Madre Kuhle, a member of Payne’s looping team, says her students did well and she developed unusually close relationships with their families.
But learning to teach new lessons every year took a toll on her energy level, says Kuhle. Unlike Payne, she didn’t enter the program a veteran of all three grades.
“For me, it was stressful. I’d never taught second grade before. Three years for me was too much.”
That’s one reason only a handful of Spokane schools practice looping, an option for all elementary schools, says Fran Mester, director of instructional programs.
Stanek says he understands why the classes are hard on teachers, but he’s disappointed. He believes retention rates would drop with more looping classes.
“I’d like to continue,” says Stanek, “but I support their feelings.”
Buddy Gallup learns math by playing games.
Slicing pizza helps Dominique Hill make sense of fractions.
Justin Pierce picks up computer skills by e-mailing Sea World.
Twice a week, while their friends head for home, the children stay after school for learning sessions that are more like play.
“What do I like best? Every Wednesday we get to have pizza,” says Justin, 11.
What do his teachers like best? He now aces spelling and reading tests - a leap from the C’s and D’s he got before joining the “Extended Day” class last fall.
“Everybody wants to come,” says Bonnie Kruse, the teacher who coordinates the program at Longfellow Elementary School. “Everybody’s asking to be in it.”
Teachers like it, too, and say the year-old program helps them avoid retaining kids who are up to two years behind classmates.
Each of the six teachers and two assistants focuses on five students, compared with typical classes of more than 20 kids. Children are paired with their regular classroom teachers, who already know their weaknesses.
But in Extended Day, they concentrate on individual problems without slowing down the rest of the class.
Students are chosen for the new program based on a combination of potential and low test scores.
While teachers say the program works, it isn’t cheap. Extended Day classes cost Longfellow about $4,000 in state and federal money this year.
The grant money - based on the number of kids who received free and reduced-price lunches - means schools with a lot of low-income kids can afford more special programs for kids lagging behind classmates, educators say.
Longfellow’s after-school classes are so popular with parents, Principal Karin Short says she plans to spend at least $6,000 next year so more kids can join.
The kids’ higher grades are obvious improvements. But they benefit just as much from the newfound confidence they take back to their regular classrooms, teachers say.
Even 9-year-old Whitney Boyd, who once looked at the ground instead of people, now raises her hand eagerly.
“It seems like once they get past ‘I can’t,’ they transfer that to everything they do,” says Vicki Dixon, the program facilitator.
“All of a sudden they think, ‘I can do this.”’
There’s a new, tough breed of middle school kids failing classes, says Les Johnson, Salk Middle School’s vice principal.
It’s not the kids who aren’t bright. It’s the ones who realize there are few consequences for poor work.
“That’s probably a much larger percent than kids who can’t do the work,” Johnson says. “They find there’s a terrific amount of power in, ‘You can’t make me do it.”’ Until now, they were right.
Salk, like other Spokane middle schools, passed most kids whether or not they did well.
Educators there know all about research showing retention tramples students’ self-esteem. But they also noticed something else.
“So many kids who moved on were dropping out later,” says Pauline Zambryski. “They weren’t being prepared for what they were going to face in high school.”
Starting this month, students who play their way through Salk will pay, Johnson says.
Teachers have spent a year diligently tracking kids who are failing under a new “accountability program.” They’ve mailed home hundreds of progress reports for kids at risk of retention.
Often, those students are routed to counselors and sometimes to alternative programs or schools.
This semester, 102 Salk students flunked 180 classes. Administrators are meeting this week with the ones who - despite warnings - didn’t make major improvements by the year’s end.
Twenty or so will get chances to catch up in the traditional two-month summer school program. Another 70 will attend a new, two-week tutoring program where they’ll complete missed work, at a cost of about $6,000 in federal and state tax money.
Several kids - and they’ll probably be stunned when it happens - will be retained, says Johnson.
Principal Mary Haugen insists she won’t hesitate to retain students as a last resort. But she also wants to remove the stigma of being held back when it’s necessary.
“This former belief that we can just have our body in attendance and not our brain … is no longer adequate,” says Haugen.
“Retention, if handled correctly, is not something that can destroy the lives of the youngster and family.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos (2 color)