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On Education: Principal Sees Mistake in Plan to Hold Back 3rd Graders

February 4, 2004 | By MICHAEL WINERIP | New York Times

Since 1978, Leonard Golubchick has been the principal of Public School 20 on the Lower East Side, one of the city's poorest schools, populated by the children of immigrants. And every year he has several students - children like Diamond Graham, Leudy Rodriguez, Amanda Chan, Arisbeily Toribio, Jennifer Cruz, Dipa Begum - who fail the citywide third-grade reading test with a score of 1.

But every year, through his savvy fund-raising, Dr. Golubchick is able to pay for additional staff and computerized reading labs along with a before-school program, an after-school program, a Saturday program and an all-day, air conditioned summer school. And thanks to all those extras, every year most of his third-grade 1's bloom into fourth-grade 3's and 4's without being held back.

So when Dr. Golubchick read of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's new mandatory retention policy to hold back every child who failed the city's third-grade reading test, two words raced through the veteran principal's mind: "Big mistake."

Dr. Golubchick was P.S. 20's principal in 1981, during the Koch administration, the last time New York City tried mandatory retention based on a test score alone. The oratory then sounded as beautiful as it does now - no longer would there be social promotion, no longer would children be passed along without mastering basics. In that 1981 "gates" program, children who failed the fourth- or seventh-grade reading tests could attend summer school and retake the test, but if they failed again, they were held back and put in "gates" classes. Those classes were small - 15 to 18 - and meant to give the retained child intensive instruction.

City officials initially hailed the program, but because it was so expensive - 1,100 extra teachers were employed for the 25,000 retained students at a cost estimated at $40 million to $70 million - an independent expert, Ernest House (now at the University of Colorado), was hired to do an assessment. Dr. House found that the retained students performed no better academically than similar low-achieving students who had not been retained. The stigma of retention seemed to be a problem; Dr. House found that in seventh grade, attendance for the retained students, even with small classes, was worse than for the low-achieving control group not retained.

A follow-up study by the city in 1986 found that half the retained fourth graders also were retained in seventh grade, which is what Dr. Golubchick remembers most. "All those 16- and 17-year-old eighth graders," he says. And what happens to a 17-year-old eighth grader? The study found that 40 percent of retained seventh graders eventually dropped out, compared with 25 percent of nonretained low achievers.

In short, New York's 1981 mandatory retention program violated the most basic rule of medicine: first do no harm. Dr. House says this is the history of mandatory retention - most studies indicate it rarely works. A 1998 review of those studies in the Chicago-based magazine Catalyst called New York's program the "biggest flop" of all.

Dr. House and Dr, Golubchick say the money is better spent on creating classes of 20 in kindergarten through third grade, more individualized tutoring and high-quality summer school. "Why flunk them to give them the services they need?" Dr. House said. "Why not just give them the services?"

Michele Cahill, an adviser to the schools chancellor, says the new program, which is expected to retain 20 percent of third graders, about 15,000 children, will succeed because retained students will not be segregated, but will get "early and continuous assessments and interventions" and a "rigorous curriculum." She said at least $25 million would be set aside for teacher training, after-school tutoring and an improved summer school program with class sizes of 15.

After 26 years, Dr. Golubchick is a wizard at finding buried grant money. He says that unlike most city principals, he has much of what he needs to help his children (99 percent get free lunches). He points out that when it comes to reading, grade level is mostly an artifice. His students are divided into reading groups and pushed according to their abilities; some fourth graders read seventh-grade books, some read second-grade books. Students lagging behind get extra computer time daily and use the Sound Reading Solutions software for phonetics and decoding and Read Naturally software for fluency. Those programs permit a child to move at his or her own pace. Whether retained or not, he says, the child does the same reading work.

Diamond Graham, now a fifth grader, got an hour extra reading a day in second and third grade, but still scored 1 on the third-grade test. In Diamond's case, says Gracelyn Davis, a P.S. 20 literacy specialist, the issue was self-esteem. "You have to be a risk taker to try reading a big word for the first time," says Ms. Davis. "We had to make the introvert an extrovert, promote Diamond's self-esteem" - the opposite of what retention does. Diamond attended P.S. 20's before-school, after-school and summer school programs. Her fourth-grade teacher, Martha Mancini, spent lunches reading with Diamond and that year, the girl got the top score, 4. As for self-esteem, Diamond can now be found touring P.S. 20, lecturing classes on the importance of recycling old batteries.

Leudy Rodriguez got a 1 in third grade at Public School 97, a school so bad it has since closed. Last year, he says, in fourth grade at P.S. 20, there were many more adults who could help. Ms. Mancini told him a neat secret. "She said when you're reading, get a mental picture of what you're reading. I tried and it was kind of fun - I was in the book." Leudy went from 1 to 3, as did Amanda Chan, Arisbeily Toribio, Jennifer Cruz and Dipa Begum. Dipa is so thankful not to be held back. "It's hard to be held back because I really want to be a smart kid," she says. "My father said if you're a smart kid you can go anywhere."

Each year after consulting with teachers, counselors and parents, Dr. Golubchick does hold back about 20, in a school of 885. He retained Samantha Tsi in third grade. Says Dr. Golubchick, "She is an only child, Chinese was spoken at home, we felt she was young for her age and needed a year to grow."

Samantha did grow, from 1 to 4. "You have to make the decision based on best interest of the child," he says. "Not best interest of the bureaucracy."

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