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Large, Vocal Turnout Questions Board of Ed Policy

March 9, 2007 — A packed room of parents, teachers and administrators gave the Board of Education (BOE) an earful at a hearing convened to review the elementary school promotion and retention policy for grades kindergarten through sixth.
For well over three hours, speaker after speaker offered observations, advice and opinions to an attentive BOE at the Curriculum Center on Thursday evening.
The Board was worried about a repeat of the poor attendance at the first hearing on the subject, which was held on St. John on Feb. 22 at which only one parent and a single teacher showed up.
Those fears were quickly dispelled as over 50 people attended the second such meeting chaired by Board President Debra Smith-Watlington. Not only were they in attendance, but they were there to participate, as a large number of people wanted to address the board policy.
The current promotion and retention policy was approved by the BOE in 1998 and amended in 2003. It states that no child should be retained or held back in the first four years of his or her education. In the early years, there are no failures, and every student is promoted until the fourth grade, at which point they can be retained for no more than one year.
While the policy was instituted with the best of intentions, the overwhelming opinion of those present at the hearing was that it was not working. In fact, they said it was having a detrimental effect on the educational system.
Principal Ophelia Shillingford from Ulla F. Muller Elementary was one of many school principals who spoke about a system that was not providing funding, teachers and facilities.
She stated that by the time students are promoted automatically through the third grade and yet are still unable to read, it is already too late for them to learn.
The audience applauded many of her remarks as she presented the problems and possible solutions. Shillingford, who has 40 years experience in education, strongly advocated retaining students in the early years until they were prepared to begin the serious business of learning.
She noted that there is a great disparity in abilities as students enter the system. While certain students at age five are ready to learn, others are barely able to negotiate stairs, lack social skills or have undiagnosed illnesses or learning disabilities.
The 2006 Kids Count report indicated that one-third of the territory’s children live in poverty and half of them live in single-parent households.
Shillingford advocated for retention in the early years for those who need to develop the social skills and interests to be able to succeed in school. She said that by the time they reached the fourth grade, 75 percent of the students were already seriously behind and should be retained.
This lack of proficiency doomed students to continued failure throughout the school experience, and many ultimately drop out. Kids Count cited the increased dropout rate of seventh- to ninth-graders over the past three years.
Principal Whitman Browne of Gladys Abraham Elementary concurred with Shillingford for the most part. He went on to say that these dropouts either end up in minimum wage jobs or worse: involved in drugs, crime, jail or death. All are lost to the community, Browne said, because they never really had a chance; they never learned how to learn.
The BOE has mandated the establishment of transitional classes to assist students not meeting the minimum proficiency standards — a 70 percent grade in all subjects. Children with academic problems are to be put in these classes until they are adequately prepared to return to the next grade level.
In certain schools these classes were never established for various reasons. Dora S.E. Hill, principal of Joseph Sibilly Elementary, said that her school had been forced to eliminate the class because she had to add a second kindergarten class. She listed seven problem areas concerning transitional classes, including minimal training, insufficient funding, no additional staffing, minimal visitation by the BOE or administrators, parental resistance, noncompliance with required competency testing and lack of classrooms.
Both Hill and Browne are veteran teachers and administrators and have had to deal with the myriad of problems accompanying the policy.
And they were not alone. Angela Carty of Evelyn Marcelli Elementary, who spoke both as a parent and an administrator, advocated for a case-by-case early retention policy.
Superintendent of Schools Lisa Hassell-Forde gave an impassioned defense of the teachers “in the trenches” who were being overwhelmed by students in real need. She stated that every social ill in the community also appears in schools and that every day 30 to 40 new students enter the system, some of whom may never have been in a school of any sort.
Many in the room advocated for mandatory pre-school and a two-tiered kindergarten, offering K1 and K2 classes, so that all students are given the chance to acclimate and get ready to progress and succeed.
Many also said that not only should teachers and administrator be held accountable, but also children and parents. All cited the daunting challenge of involving more parents in their children’s education. Hassell-Forde said, “And it is not just the parents, it has to be a community effort and priority.”
Throughout the hearing the BOE listened attentively, asked questions and took copious notes. The Board includes Watlington, Terrence Joseph, Oswin Sewer Sr., Judy Gomez, Keith Richards, Nandi Sekou, Jorge Galiber, Shawn Gibson, and Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly.

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