Daily Planet Staff
After months of complaints by parents, teachers and community members, the Berkeley Unified School Board is set to vote Wednesday on a revised retention and promotion policy.
The original policy, approved by the board last June, has been criticized as being unfair to students, removing “social promotion” from the district without providing the necessary support programs to help academically at-risk students.
The policy was the BUSD’s response to legislation signed into law in the fall of 1998 requiring all districts to develop new guidelines on retention and promotion. A major goal was the end of social promotion: students who are promoted to the next grade, even though they do not meet grade-level proficiency. Another piece of legislation required districts to institute support programs for students who are at risk of being retained.
The BUSD’s policy was formed through a series of workshops and meetings involving principals, site staff, parents and community members.
Concerns were raised in the fall about whether parents were being adequately notified about the district’s new policy after it went into effect, but the harshest criticisms arose in February after administrators determined that nearly 25 percent of all elementary students were considered “at risk” of being retained for next year. Even the administration admits holding back that many students “would widen the gap of achievement and create a poor learning environment.”
At the March 15 meeting, the school board was presented with a revised policy that seeks to address many of the concerns raised by parents and community members, as well as those noticed by administrators and staff.
A written report delivered that night highlighted some of the problems associated with the policy’s implementation:
• Decentralized budgets and lack of available trained personnel for intervention programs at the elementary level
• Inconsistent grading policies and practices, limited support systems, confusion around the “incomplete” grade, unfinished end-of-course exams, and English and math courses that are not aligned completely to the standards at the middle school level
• Initially confusing information distributed to parents, inconsistent grading policies and practices, unfinished end-of-course exams, change of policy in mid-year and history course alignment that remains to be done at the high school level
Chris Lim, associate superintendent for instruction, told the board that the revised policy would provide a “transition” period for many students and would modify some of practices implemented in the original plan.
At the elementary level, only reading performance will be used to identify at-risk second- and third-graders. Math performance will be incorporated for fourth- and fifth-graders. The district also will develop a “zone intervention program” for next year, with budgets consolidated and coordinated.
In the middle schools, the “I” – incomplete – grade will be dropped, and sixth-graders at risk of being retained will be able to make up credits through summer school, allowing them to move on the next grade. The schools also will develop an action plan for aligning math and English standards.
At the high school level, the revised policy proposed a ninth-grade “Opportunity Program” for highly at-risk students, which will use an enhanced funding allocation from the state.
School board members, who had heard concerns shared during public comment periods in the last couple months and at community forums, were generally positive about the proposed changes.
“The goal of the district is not to retain kids,” Board President Joaquin Rivera said at last month’s meeting. “We want to help these kids, we want them to be successful.”
During the public comment period, one community member criticized the retention-promotion policy in general, saying it was “criminal.” Director Shirley Issel took issue with that comment.
“What’s actually criminal is the failure to identify and respond effectively to those kids who are failing behind,” Issel said.
The BUSD School Board meeting begins at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and will be held in Board/Council Chambers in Old City Hall, at 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way.
The meeting is scheduled to be broadcast on B-TV, Cable Channel 25, and 89.3-FM, KPFB.