School board policy committee members got an introduction to a thorny subject at their meeting last week.
Director of secondary instruction Julie Thomas told them some principals were requesting additional wording in the policy regarding promotion, retention and placement of students.
According to Thomas, the principals want the policy to specify that when a student is "placed" in the next grade as opposed to promoted, the principal must get full documentation of the student's areas of academic need in plenty of time to formulate a plan to address them.
"It's also important that the teachers know the areas of need," added schools director Roy Dukes. "It helps if you know where to start with a child."
"Documentation is a critical issue," Thomas said, pointing out that nothing in Policy 4.603 addresses "placement."
She explained to committee members that at the end of a school year, a student can be promoted to the next grade, retained in the same grade, or "placed" in the next grade, even though, academically, they don't have all the skills they needed for promotion.
"A lot of research says not to retain them at the higher grades," Thomas said. "Socially and emotionally it is better to be placed than retained."
Three students were placed in middle school this year, Thomas said, without informing the principal and teachers that they had deficiencies in every subject.
"We didn't know this going in," said middle school teacher Patty Hill who was sitting in on the meeting. "They should have had help before."
Committee member Harvey Jones Jr. agreed with her.
"We're waiting too late to get the kids help," he said, mentioning a child at one elementary school who "needs more help than a teacher can give."
"Is there a time-limit on placement?" asked Mike Keny.
"That's an excellent concern," Thomas replied. "We found out one of them (who was placed in middle school) had been placed since 3rd grade."
"There's something not right about this picture," exclaimed Curt Denton.
"It's pitiful," agreed Hill.
"I'd like to see a limit on placement," Denton said. "You should put in the policy that they can't be placed until they've been retained one time."
Thomas conceded that the policy "may need more guidelines on retention versus placement."
"It has become in issue," she said. "We're seeing some repercussions because they have been placed instead of retained."
The revised policy will be sent to the Tennessee School Boards Association for an opinion before the board votes on whether or not to adopt it.
Members of the school board's curriculum committee are thinking about holding a summer academy or summer school this year, to help academically deficient students catch up with their age group, but this led to reiteration of a point that was made repeatedly throughout the session: parental involvement is essential.
Now more than ever, with the Tennessee Diploma Project and Race to the Top, Dukes stressed that the school system must do everything possible to "meet these students' needs to make them successful."