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Posted By: James Bruggeman on March 5, 2002
Dr. Gelberg:

When I first came to my district thirteen years ago and assumed the principalship of this K-5 school, I was an enthusiastic proponent of T1 "transition" classrooms and carefully considered retentions for students who were "too young" in the primary grades. We felt that we had the tools and the sagacity to ascertain who was "too young" and who was "just right" for their respective grade levels.

About six years into my work here, I noticed that a disproportionately large number of those retained in kindergarten or first grade, when they reached late first and early second grade, were referred, tested, and met the criteria for specific reading and writing learning disabilities. Also, we found that a disporportionately large number of Native American students were being retained (We were yet to learn about the dissimilarities between so-called "reservation English" and so-called "standard English and how the two often did not jibe.). Our district's assistant superintendent for instruction and I then extended my study to the district and found that this pattern was true in all other elementary schools. As a result, our district has nearly eliminated the practice of retention except in the cases of students who miss more than a third of the school year and then only if they show academic deficits.

We have found that "child development" proceeds on a broken front. Children who are "too young" in one year may "catch up" or even "exceed" their "older" peers on all measures of academic and social-emotional development. Many variables account for differences in child development not just those of a genetic/biological nature. Differentiation of instruction for us is a better alternative than retention. Yet, I will not exclude the possibilities that some retentions may be quite successfull. I am sure that we all can point to retentions that resulted in students' improved academic performance and social-emotional functioning. Our problem is that we cannot predict which will and which will not prove to be successful despite all the wisdom we attribute to our instruments, observations, and judgement. Those are god-like, predictive powers that are denied ordinary mortals.

In recent years, we also are finding that some of the social-emotional behavior (tantrums, rage, inability to form productive peer relations, writing difficulties, etc.) that we formerly took as indicating a student was too immature for a grade placement were really signs of genetic maladies such as ADHD, mild aspergers, high functioning autism or socially-induced maladies such as PTSD. In all of these cases, in-class assistance from special education teachers, classroom accommodations, behavior plans proved to be a more satisfactory response than retention.

Dr. James Bruggeman
Principal, Irving School
Bozeman, MT

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 People who were held back/"failed" a grade who later went on to pursue careers in education by Jill Johnson on February 23, 2002
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