Wareham School Committee member, officials disagree on student promotion practices

Jan 17, 2019

School drop out rates, and the effect holding students back has on those rates, prompted a heated exchange at Thursday’s School Committee meeting.

The discussion was held at the request of committee member Michael Flaherty, who said students shouldn’t be promoted to a higher grade if they aren’t learning the material, a practice known as “social promotion.”

“We are systemically – between grades three and eight – passing on students to the next grade who haven’t learned the material,” Flaherty said. “And that’s unacceptable.”

Seated across from him were the principals from each of Wareham’s public schools and Superintendent Dr. Kimberly Shaver-Hood.

The administrators argued they had to balance holding students back against studies, and district data, that shows drop out rates spike when students don’t advance.

“Retaining students anywhere from grade three on up is not good for students,” said Wareham Middle School interim Principal Tracie Cote. “It’s dangerous.”

Shaver-Hood said one of the best indicators a student will drop out is if they are held back a grade.

Citing a study, Shaver-Hood said: “If retained once, a student’s chance of dropping out increases 35 percent…That’s quite eye-opening data.”

In Wareham, she said 35 students have dropped out over the past three years. Of those students, 16 were retained once and five were retained twice.

“What’s especially disturbing for us is we had one student retained four times, three times in tenth grade,” said Shaver-Hood. “It really speaks to the work that needs to be done in the district.”

Flaherty agreed, but noted that promoting students for the sake of it was also concerning.

“They’re not learning,” he said.

Administrators said gains were being made in the younger grades thanks to a new focus on reading launched within the past few years. Elementary and middle school principals said they had fewer resources to help struggling students.

Looking ahead, Shaver-Hood recommended exploring options for providing help to struggling students. She said a group made up of administrators, teachers and a School Committee should be formed.

“I think the conversation I would like to have now is how are we going to provide support for those students,” she said. “Could I have a volunteer?”

Flaherty then agreed to join the group.