Social Promotion Vow Put To The Test

Melissa Bailey PhotoIf teachers follow through on their word at an experimental city high school, only half of freshmen may be able to move up to 10th grade next year.

That’s one challenge facing students and teachers in the closing months of the first year of an experimental new regime at the city’s teacher-run high school, High School in the Community (HSC).

The challenge puts to the test a larger question: Can schools end social promotion, and if so, how best can they do that?

Building Leader (aka principal) Erik Good began school last September with a bold announcement to the 65 incoming freshmen: Gone are the days of social promotion, where kids pass through school based on their age, even when they’re unprepared. Starting with this year’s freshmen, Good announced, students will no longer be able to skate through school with Ds. They’ll have to show “mastery” of set skills in every class before moving up to the next level. They’ll proceed at their own pace, even if it takes them five or six years to finish high school.

Seven months later, Good and his colleagues are preparing to hold true to their word. If they do that, Good said, half of the current freshmen may not move up to 10th grade next year. A 50 percent pass rate would be significantly lower than in previous years, when the rate was between 65 and 75 percent, Good said. Holding half of the class back would be difficult for students and parents, Good predicted, but he said it fits his prediction for how the first year would go.

“I knew it was going to be tough,” Good said.

Good said the tough promotion rule is for kids’ own good: If the school keeps heeding pressure to pass kids through high school even when they’re unprepared, they will continue to struggle when they get to college or try to start careers.

The higher standards mean more students are staying after school in mandatory “Eagle Time” to try to catch up. Reactions to the new model have been mixed.

Freshman Frankie Perrotti, of Wooster Square, stayed after school last week to catch up on honors algebra work. He called the new self-paced model “flawed” because it works better for some kids than for others.

“It’s putting more weight on kids’ shoulders,” said Frankie. Whether the system works “depends on how students react to being forced to make a commitment to the work.”

When all students learn at their own pace, Frankie added, they are sometimes left on their own: “If you need help in class, you can’t ask a friend” because a friend may be working on different material. And the teacher can’t help everyone at once.

Despite the downsides he identified, Frankie said he likes the new system and feels on track to finish high school in four years. 

Freshman Calvin Hernandez (pictured to the top of this story) also said he’s confident he’ll finish his classes and earn the right to move up to sophomore year.

Alayzia Malloy, another freshman, said the new system can be frustrating. A chronic illness has forced her to miss many days of school. Now she has to stay after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays every week, along with some other peers.

“It’s sad,” she said of having to spend extra hours at school. “I want to go home.”

Alayzia said overall, she supports the system.

“If I do all my work,” she said, she’ll catch up and move up to 10th grade next fall.

Alayzia’s mom, Nebrel Gray, expressed reservations as she picked up her daughter up after school in a Pontiac minivan.

Gray said she first learned of HSC’s experiment in individual pacing at a parent report card night. Alayzia’s math teacher explained to Gray that in the new system, her daughter may end up taking five years of math.

“I feel like it’s crazy!” Gray said. She said life has a natural timeline: “You do four years of high school, then you go to college.”

If kids are falling behind, she said, “I feel like you should catch kids up” so they can finish in four years.

If the school puts her daughter on a five-year graduation plan, Gray said, “I may have to transfer her out.”

How To “Pump” Kids Up?

In a recent staff meeting, teachers acknowledged the emotional toll that the system may take on kids who are confronted with an honest assessment of how much work they have to do to reach grade level.

Guidance counselor Chris Lesieur raised a concern that the school is “not celebrating success enough.” He encouraged teachers to find ways “to pump up kids who are engaged and trying,” even though their academic progress may be slower than they hoped.

Meanwhile, teachers set about plotting next steps. With just a couple of weeks’ notice, they got a directive from central office to submit new course titles by April 1. That sent teachers scrambling to figure out the structure of a constantly evolving experiment.

Part of the challenge: many kids will be repeating, but they won’t necessarily repeat a class for an entire year. In the self-pacing model, kids hypothetically can move between classes with more fluidity. If they don’t pass Algebra I, they aren’t forced to repeat the class for a whole extra year, starting again at square one. They could start out next fall in Algebra I, learn the material they missed in the previous year, then move on to Algebra II.

To accommodate the new system, the school has created half-year classes. At the halfway mark, the school can regroup students based on how much progress they have made. The eventual goal is to get rid of “classes” and have kids learn on their own pace, setting their own schedules—but such a fundamental change is still a few years away.

On a recent Friday, teachers met in their departments to figure out what to do with next year’s freshmen—including incoming students and the likely larger-than-usual group of repeaters.

Math teacher Wayne Austin (who also runs a shop class using spare parts scavenged from the dump) pushed his couch into the middle of the room and plugged a projector into his new school-issued MacBook, one of the benefits the heretofore-neglected school has received from a new state grant.

Austin (at left in photo with first-year teacher Tom James) outlined the progress the department has made with some kids who arrived at HSC way behind grade level. Austin and Kelly Wrinn have been teaching a math lab for a group of students who came to the school with math skills as low as the 2nd-grade level.

“Some students didn’t know multiplication tables” when they walked in the door, Austin said. One student started out with the 2 times tables, and has progressed up to 9s and 10s, he said.

Based in part on past practices of social promotion, students have arrived at upper math classes missing some basic skills. Some students in Algebra II still struggle with simple problems, such as 8 times negative 2, Wrinn said.

“I have some 9th-graders who have learned no Algebra I” this year, James bluntly announced. Some students can’t read the word problems, he said.

“What we’ve been doing in Algebra I has been 6th to 8th-grade math,” James said. Kids won’t be able to grasp higher concepts until they’ve learned those basics, he said. He attributed the problem to low literacy and some students’ lack of “number sense.”

“Lack of motivation may be the cause,” suggested Austin.

The team mapped out a set of proposed courses that reflected a candid assessment of where kids are. They proposed creating two remedial pre-algebra classes instead of one: One class for kids with skills on the 2nd- to 6th-grade level, and another for students in the 6th- to 8th-grade range.

The prescription may be hard to swallow, Austin said.

“Nobody wants to hear” that they’ll be working on 2nd-grade math instead of 9th-grade algebra, he conceded. He wondered aloud if students could enroll simultaneously in remedial math while also proceeding with algebra: “Just because they don’t know percents, doesn’t mean they can’t handle a set of equations.”

Principal Good acknowledged how daunting it can feel to kids to hear an honest assessment of their skills. But “we need to have that conversation,” he said.

If students come to HSC on 7th-grade level, teachers need to tell them candidly: “You are behind. It would take a tremendous amount of work” to catch up and finish high school in four years, but it’s still possible.

Good said when kids realize how far behind they are, that’s when attendance drops off and “behavior problems erupt.”

“It’s a problem,” Good said. But he said the new self-pacing system gives kids more of a chance to catch up: Students may feel demoralized to have to repeat an entire year of Algebra I. But in the new system, they won’t have to do that: They can work after-school or in the summer to complete just the pieces they’ve failed to master.

Good acknowledged the skepticism from parents like Gray. Part of the problem, Good said, is that the system is new, so the school can’t yet point to success stories of graduates who have reaped the benefits of spending extra time to catch up in school.

“We have something to prove. Until we’ve proved it, it’s going to be hard,” Good said.

Word Spreads

The school did get some promising news last week in the magnet lottery.

After years of declining enrollment and performance as the school failed to adjust to a changing population that faced increasing levels of trauma and disabilities, HSC has been the only magnet school failing to draw teems of suburban kids knocking at the door. While all other magnet schools in the city have wait lists, HSC is underenrolled.

The recent magnet lottery showed interest on the rise: The number of applications from New Haven kids grew from 182 to 205. Suburban applications rose from 96 to 109.

“It looks like people have been paying attention” to the school’s ambitious experiment, Good said.

He called the rise in applications a good early indicator for what will be a years-long undertaking to reverse years of educational failure at the school. “It took us 15 to 20 years to step down to the level of concern that forced the turnaround,” Good said. “It’s not all going to get fixed in one year.”

“I think if we stick to it,” Good said, “it’s going to work.”

Previous Independent stories on High School in the Community:

HSC Heads To Capitol For New Diplomas
She Awoke To A New Life—& A New Mission
High School Of The Future Debuts, Briefly
Gay-Rights Teach-In Goes Off-Script
Nikita Makes It Home
15 Seniors Head To College Early
No More “B And A Smile”
Students Protest: “Give Us Homework!”
Meadow Street Clamps Down On Turnaround
School Votes For Hats; District Brass Balks
Students Invoke Free Speech In Great Hat Debate
Guv: End Social Promotion
History Class Hits The Streets
• “Misfit Josh” & Alex Get A 2nd Chance
Guess Who’s Assigning The Homework Now
On Day 1, HSC Students Enter A New World
Frank Reports Detail Experiment’s Ups & Downs
School Ditches Factory “Assembly Line”
State “Invites” HSC To Commissioner’s Network
Teachers Union Will Run New “Turnaround”

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posted by: mechanic on April 1, 2013  2:46pm

Here’s a big part of the problem, “If kids are falling behind, she said, “I feel like you should catch kids up” so they can finish in four years.” 

There’s nothing stopping her daughter from working hard to get caught up.  In fact, the school is facillitating extra time for her to work to get caught up.  Her comment makes it sounds like it’s on the school for her to “get” caught up, somehow during the 6 1/2 hours she’s in school working on other subjects.

posted by: P Christopher Ozyck on April 1, 2013  3:11pm

The buck must stop somewhere. Bravo to the whole school.

posted by: Samuel T. Ross-Lee on April 2, 2013  9:45am

There is something that feels irresponsible about this article. Were there NO students or parents who are associated with this school who are pleased with the concept and the practice of ending social promotion and making sure the kids actually learn what they need to know in order to go to the next grade and be competent at that grade? NOBODY?

If there were, why weren’t they interviewed or quoted in the story? Using ONLY negative assessments from the parents and students of the school’s program gives the impression that none of the parents or students like what’s going on there, and I’m certain that that’s not the case.

Even if the supporters of this approach are in the minority, their REASONS For supporting the practice would be helpful (and perhaps instructive) to know and understand.

It is ALWAYS easy to find people who disagree with something that is new or unfamiliar.  It seems to me, however, that good reporting would search out the information that is not floating on the surface, but that is good and necessary to have.

The Rev. Mr. Samuel T. Ross-Lee