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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Students Must Prove They Are Learning Spokane School Board Prepares A Policy That Would Ask Students To Prove They Are Ready To Advance

You play, you pay.

Spokane District 81 school board members are making plans to send that message to kids who play their way through classes.

The board is fine-tuning a policy that would force students to prove they’re academically prepared before advancing to the next grade level.

That could mean summer school. That could mean weekend classes. And yes, it could even mean flunking - something about as common as a tropical storm in Spokane.

Board members plan to vote on the policy soon, maybe within two weeks. So far, all appear to favor it.

But they’re also hearing warnings from parents and eductors who worry such a policy will be unfair to kids from low-income families, kids with learning disabilities and kids whose native language isn’t English.

Some principals fear the plan will heap yet another scoop on teachers’ overloaded plates and that teachers might abandon schools where kids need more help.

“There’s a lot of anxiety that comes across. That anxiety, I think, is warranted,” said board member Terrie Beaudreau. “We’re all a little anxious about this.”

Educators gathered comments from the public at six forums last fall, and they say most people favor the change despite the concerns.

Students would be assessed before they’d be allowed to enter grades four, seven and nine, according to a draft of the policy.

A pilot program would probably start next school year. Eventually students at all schools would be required to prove themselves.

Beaudreau said she believes the policy will create more successful students, partly because kids will try harder.

“We’re going to solve a lot of problems just because kids will step up to the plate,” she said. “Kids generally do what’s expected of them.”

Board members say they want flunking, also called retention, to be used sparingly. They cite research showing it can hurt kids’ self-esteem and doesn’t really help their learning.

“Retention by itself doesn’t work, particularly when it’s the same old, same old,” said Associate Superintendent Cynthia Lambarth. “We finally said as a committee, retention is a very, very last resort.”

But, quipped Beaudreau, “Part of me wants to not let kids know that.”

Individual schools would decide how to handle students who are falling behind. Some students could be required to attend summer school, Saturday classes or special tutoring sessions.

Decisions on whether to flunk a student would be left up to the principal, who will consult with teachers and parents, according to the policy draft.

Kids at all schools will be required to meet the same standards, which haven’t been determined yet. They might consist of a combination of classroom grades, tests and portfolios of student work, said board member Rocco Treppiedi.

No one knows how much these changes could cost, he said. Some of the changes could mean shifting resources and employees.

“We may have to take away from seventh grade or middle schools and give them back to elementary schools, for instance,” Treppiedi said.

Shifting resources may work, but don’t shift them from programs like music and art, warned Becky Holt, assistant principal at Glover. Some students excel artistically and not academically, she said.

“That’s how we really touch some kids, is through music or P.E. or fine arts or drama,” Holt said. “Kids can express themselves in many other ways, too.”

Denise Sandbo, principal at Holmes Elementary in north Spokane, echoed concerns expressed by members of the district’s citizens equity committee.

Some students are burdened with family and social problems that make concentrating on school tough, she said.

“It’s survival stuff compared to school and learning,” she said.

She also worries teachers might leave some schools for those where students do better academically.

“It’s going to look much easier in a high-income school,” she said. “I don’t want to lose those good teachers.”

“We have staff who are still reeling from the state-mandated tests,” added Area Director Larry Parsons, referring to the new assessment tests that are part of the state’s education reform plan.

Flexibility is key to the policy’s success, said Superintendent Gary Livingston. Rules won’t be so strict that educators can’t occasionally make exceptions for some students, perhaps those with learning disabilities or kids just learning English.

But for most failing students, that’s not the problem, he said.

“Most students who aren’t achieving, it’s not about ability, it’s about effort.”

, DataTimes

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