MANCHESTER, N.H. – Why are kids in Manchester’s public schools being held back a grade? That was the center of discussion on Wednesday night, with a new approach to addressing that issue coming in the near future.
The Manchester Board of School Committee Teaching and Learning Committee approved a request from district administrators to develop a new policy regarding “retention” or keeping students within a grade for an additional year.
In a presentation to the committee, administrators reported that 4,061 students have been held back from advancing to the next grade over the past ten school years. However, this figure included 2,241 pre-kindergarten students in programs for children aged 3 to 5, with that figure not indicating how many pre-kindergarten students remained in those programs for two or three of those years.
Those years were ultimately included in the study due to an analysis of the costs of retention to the school district, which cost a total of $3,375,000 during the 2019-’20 school year and $55,740,00 over the past ten school years.
According to research presented by the administrators in the meeting, led by Assistant Superindent Amy Allen, students who repeated a middle school grade were 11 times more likely to drop out of school entirely and a student that repeats two grades is 90 percent more likely to drop out of high school. In particular, ninth grade proves to be the pivotal year, with most dropouts occurring between ninth and tenth grades.
During Wednesday’s committee meeting, the administrators were not proposing a new policy regarding retention, but instead asked the committee to present an update for the most recent amendment to the district’s policy on retention which was last updated in 2013.
The administrative recommendations included never retaining Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or English Language Learner (ELL) students without direct approval of the district’s IEP or ELL Directors; prohibiting poor behavior as a reason for retention; refusing retention unless multiple research-based interventions have been used and failed; including parents in any retention decisions; and charging tuition to parents who insist their child be retained without any academic reason.
On that last point, Peter Perich (Ward 8) asked if it was illegal to force parents to pay for a second year of the same grade, citing a situation during his educational career where a family asked for their child to be held back a year in hopes of improving his chances of a college athletic scholarship.
The administrators said it was not illegal, but it has not generally been done in this part of the country in recent years.
Other factors such as early-age intervention and increasing the number of guidance counselors in the district were also recommended as factors for administration to include in their new proposed policy.
Teaching and Learning Chairwoman Kathleen Kelly Arnold (Ward 2) said this topic was particularly timely given the impact of COVID-19 on students across the city.
“I think we have so much work to do, I know we have so much work to do because if you talk to a lot of people, this year has been a throw-away year for so many kids,” Arnold said. “I don’t want to penalize them, I don’t want to retain kids, especially due to COVID, but I think we need to bring ourselves on where we need to go regarding teaching and learning.”