By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
The Havre school board has approved a preliminary plan to revise the guidelines that determine which children are allowed to go to the next grade.
After nearly five months of research and discussion, members of a team chosen to revise the current retention policy presented their recommendations to the school board Tuesday night.
Retention is the district's term for holding a student back a grade.
Team leader Karla Wohlwend told the board before the vote that the team's initial research "found that our policy was lacking and that we needed to address some issues with specific points."
Wohlwend said the greatest change in the four-page policy would be to give the school more authority to retain students. Under the current policy, parents can override the school's recommendation.
School board member Kathie Newell, the only member of the board who was actively involved in the team examining the retention policy, wrote to the board, "I was shocked to learn that a large percentage of students who are recommended for retention by our teaching and administrative staff actually end up being assigned to the next grade level because our current policy allows for parental assignment to the next grade level despite the school's recommendation for retention."
Newell wrote the letter because she could not attend the meeting Tuesday night.
Havre Middle School principal Vance Blatter said this morning that last year the school recommended 24 students for retention in the middle school, and that only four of those were retained.
The year before that, he said, 22 students were recommended for retention and three of those were retained.
In most cases, he said, the parents did not heed the school's recommendation.
"Very few parents have chosen to accept that recommendation," he said.
"The way the policy reads, the parent has the right to assign them to the next grade level."
The revised policy strikes a provision in the current policy that allows a child's parent to override the recommendation of the retention conference team.
"Ultimately the decision will rest with Havre Public Schools, specifically with the principal and the teacher of the student," Wohlwend said.
Parents who disagree with the committee's ruling will have recourse to an appeals process.
"Ultimately the superintendent will hear parents' concerns," Wohlwend said.
Team members stressed that parents would still be involved.
"I think it's real important to keep parents involved and keep them informed," said team member Suzanne Larsen, a fifth-grade teacher at Sunnyside Intermediate School.
Team member Sara Harada, a second-grade teacher at Lincoln-McKinley, said parents will be put on the retention committee used to determine whether their child advances to the next grade.
"I think what it needs to be is a team event," Blatter said. "It's a decision that is going to 100 percent involve the parent."
The proposed changes to the policy also include stricter attendance standards. The new document specifies that "Frequent, excessive, or prolonged absence is justification for retention and may be used as the sole criteria in consideration of retention."
The original policy stated that prolonged or frequent absences with "inconsistent reasons," would be among the factors taken into account when considering whether to retain a student.
"If they are not attending, they miss a lot," Larsen said.
"It's been a real challenge for us to show (students) that you don't move beyond this class until you succeed," said team member Robin Soyer, a math teacher at Havre High School. Soyer stressed that the policy changes are an attempt to make children accountable for their learning. She said she has experienced "more and more kids that didn't have to be accountable for learning in their lower grades."
As that suggests, the team focused on early retention.
"We do know that earlier is better," Wohlwend said.
Those instructions have been revised to specify that "When possible, retention should take place in the early years (kindergarten - grade three). Retention of students beyond grade three should be approached with extreme caution."
The document also explicitly states that if a child is retained once, "subsequent retentions will not be recommended during grades K-8."
The team also amended the policy's list of 17 factors that schools must consider when reviewing a student's performance.
A new 18th factor is "overall health and well-being," a category that includes conditions like poverty, emotional trauma, drug use, and physical disabilities.
The team made the procedures more specific for determining if a student is retained, and then helping the student once he or she is.
The procedure involves a series of steps to inform the principal and parents that a child is failing. If there is no improvement by March or April, a retention committee meeting is called that includes teachers, parents, the principal, other faculty members, and in some cases the student.
By May 15, the committee decides whether to retain a student.
If a student is retained, the committee makes an individual retention plan for the student, which prescribes strategies to help the student achieve. These may include mandatory tutoring, special education, help from paraprofessionals, and parental involvement if attendance is a factor.
The board is expected to take a final vote on the policy May 13.