Failing students defy statistics by staying in school
Every day, Tamara Chavez wears a constant reminder of her mistakes around her neck. Though Chavez is in her third year at Blair, her freshman ID is no printing error. She has been held back - twice.
Throughout her first freshman year, Chavez skipped frequently, going to class only once or twice a week. With straight Es on her report card almost every quarter, Chavez was suspended for three months because of her poor attendance towards the end of the year. When she reenrolled, she lacked the five credits required to pass ninth grade and was held back.
Retained students are up to 11 times more likely to drop out of high school, according to the California Association of School Psychologists. Blair's current dropout rate of 2.92 percent, according to the 2006 Maryland Report Card, is at an all-time high. As Blazers like Chavez work through the same curriculum multiple times, they struggle to earn the credits and find the motivation they need to move up and out of Blair.
The consequences of cutting class
Chavez's teachers and parents noticed her poor performance in school and even organized an intervention conference in hopes of convincing her to stop cutting class. Chavez's counselor suggested that she get a form signed daily by her teachers to prove that she had attended all her classes and completed her homework. Though this method worked for a month, Chavez quickly grew tired of her dull school routine and returned to her old habits.
Once again, she started leaving the campus during school hours to attend skipping parties. As Chavez and two friends left school grounds one day last winter, they had to slosh across the slick, icy Colesville Road amid traffic, narrowly avoiding Blair security officers. Chavez eluded security, but the real consequences of cutting class were dismal grades.
Though she says she wanted to go to class, Chavez continually gave into her friends' pressure to skip "just one more time." But her closest group of friends separated after many were expelled for truancy, and Chavez's academic performance gradually improved. Without anyone to convince her to skip, Chavez was able to focus more on her academics.
Similarly, Stuart, a second-time freshman whose name has been changed to protect him from legal repercussions, lost credit because he regularly skipped class to sell drugs outside of Blair. Eventually, this resulted in his arrest outside of the Four Corners McDonald's for possession of marijuana.
Compared to the $200 he earned from dealing daily prior to his arrest, school seemed unimportant. "It was the only way we could get money in our pockets," he says. "We were always serving people out of school. We would tell [teachers] we were going to the bathroom and leave." With school low on his list of priorities, Stuart did not earn enough credits to advance to the next grade level.
Though her intent was not to miss class, sophomore Elizabeth Morales, a would-be junior, was forced to after getting pregnant during her freshman year. As the unexcused absences she took to care for her child accumulated, she lost credit in many classes, and was unable to move on to 10th grade. Even with financial support from her son's father and help from her parents, Morales struggles to balance the needs of a toddler with her education.
Although Morales has often considered dropping out, her goals - she wants to graduate and go to college - have kept her in school. Her main source of motivation stems from a desire to provide for her son. "I can't have a minimum-wage job in the future because of my son," she says. "I need at least a high school diploma." Morales now goes to all of her classes, and while she struggles with her schoolwork, she says that she is trying her best.
For Chavez, the consequences of her poor academic record became apparent during her second freshman year when she received letters notifying her of her impending expulsion. "I really thought that was it for me," she says. "All my friends were kicked out, and I was like, '[expletive], I'm next.'"
The turning point came during the conference that decided whether or not she would be allowed to stay at Blair. Heading into the conference, Chavez was sure she would be expelled — she was already considering possible jobs. "When they told me that I was allowed to go back, [my dad] was like, 'That's a miracle,'" she says. Grateful for her second chance, she headed back to school with hope.
However, when Chavez returned to Blair, she had already missed enough class time to lose credit for all her first semester courses: she earned only 2.5 credits during her entire second year, meaning that she would have to repeat ninth grade again.
Despite their academic struggles, Chavez, Morales and Stuart all defy research concluding that grade retention has a correlation with dropout rates, notes the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP).
Some experts doubt the effectiveness of grade retention because it does not appear to have an effect on school performance. "Retention as something that has educational value has never been supported," says Ted Feinberg, the assistant executive director of the NASP. To prevent students from being held back, the NASP recommends that schools encourage parental involvement in their children's education, monitor student progress, provide mental health programs and offer extended schooling services.
Assistant Principal Suzanne Harvey says that the services recommended by the NASP are already available at Blair in the form of conferences, night and Saturday school, academic support and the academy structure. She says that students without enough credits to pass should not be perceived as having been "held back" — rather, they simply have not earned enough credits for promotion to the next grade level. "It is ultimately the student's decision to learn," says Harvey.
Whether or not students have learned from being held back depends on the student. Stuart, for one, says that he regrets the consequences of his actions, not the actions themselves. Chavez, however, has learned about hard work and discipline from her experience. "I realize my mistakes. I have to prove to people that I can make it," she says.
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