Retention by choice has citizens paying

Marsha Sutton
Marsha Sutton

By Marsha Sutton

Several parents alerted me to an interesting situation at Carmel Valley Middle School, where a handful of eighth-grade students are choosing (or, in some cases, their parents are choosing for them) to repeat eighth grade, even though they have passed (or, in some cases, passed with honors) their classes.

Call me old-fashioned, but when I grew up, repeating a grade was a negative stigma. Nowadays it seems that retention is considered a valid choice, one that gives kids, especially boys, the (unfair?) advantages of superior size, strength and social maturity.

So we see 19-year-old high school seniors hitting further in baseball, jumping higher in basketball, running faster in track, growing beards and towering over the little freshmen, particularly the ones who are still 14 and haven’t caught on to the obscene notion of retention by choice, usually to be better at sports.

Called red-shirting, the term for retention by choice is commonly used to refer to benefits gained by older children in athletics, although it’s now applied across the board, for kids held back at all ages for a variety of reasons.

Rick Schmitt, San Dieguito Union High School District’s associate superintendent for educational services, said “it happens all around the country” and that “hundreds of high school kids” in the district are 15 when they start ninth grade.

Many of these ninth-graders were held back for kindergarten, which can result in classes comprised of students ranging in age from 4 to 7, a nightmare scenario for kindergarten teachers.

That’s one thing, but repeating eighth grade by choice is quite another. And at least in those kindergarten cases, taxpayers aren’t paying for an extra year of schooling.

Both Schmitt and CVMS principal Laurie Francis said eighth-grade retention by choice is not common practice.

“This is the first year it’s come up,” said Francis, who is finishing her third year as CVMS principal. “We haven’t had this request before. It’s not like this has been rampant.”

She said six families asked to have their eighth-grade children held back this year. She was able to convince two otherwise, but four could not be swayed.

“If it was up to me, I’d probably move them all on,” she said. “I’m not a big advocate of retention.”

Francis said it snowballed after word got out that one parent asked that his son repeat eighth grade, even though the boy was an honor student. Confidentiality requirements prohibited Francis from naming the student or providing details. She did say sports was a factor, but that the decision went beyond athletics.

“Generally, I’m able to help parents see how maybe that’s not in the better interest of the student,” she said. “I tried to counsel the parent out of it, [but] we agreed to disagree on it.”

Once news of this one case circulated, five more students asked to be retained. “I think this initial one did open the gate,” said Francis, noting that each case was different and involved a variety of reasons – including social and emotional development, family circumstances and learning disabilities.

“I was ready to hold the line, but I don’t have a board policy that supports that,” she said, calling San Dieguito a district of choice.

“On the other hand, parents know their kids best. And they’re saying to me, ‘I know this is what’s right for my kid, and emotionally he needs this.’”

She said it was important to consider that parents “have different information than I do about family dynamics.” It’s difficult to argue with parents who claim that promoting their child on to ninth grade is a mistake that would have “life-changing impact,” she said.

“I can see both sides of it because one of the strengths of San Dieguito is that it is a district driven by parental choice,” she said.

Francis emphasized that this was just a “weird year.”

“I’ve got 750 kids [in eighth grade], and we have four this year who are doing it,” she said. “I think that’s why the board policy hasn’t been revisited, because it’s kind of a non-issue.”

“What message does this send our children about academics?” asked one parent who insisted on anonymity.

“It’s usually the opposite, where parents at this point are trying to get their kid through and move them on up,” said Francis, who previously worked in the San Diego Unified School District where mandatory retention of failing students as a board policy has been challenging to enforce.

Cost to taxpayers

Then there’s the issue of funding. Each student costs money to educate, and public schools are funded by ... well … the public.

Asked the anonymous parent in an email, “As it is a public school, is it legal for the students to repeat if they passed a grade?”

“I have some feelings about taxpayer dollars,” Francis said, alluding to the extra cost the public absorbs to educate a student in the same grade twice.

Schmitt said the point is well-taken. “Does a kid get to go to school on the public dime for 14 years instead of 13?” he said.

But for the “small number of families that do it,” he said individual families can make that choice.

“Parents may choose to hold kids back,” Schmitt said. “We do not endorse or push back. It is a family decision.”

Schmitt said the school district has no options on this question, referring to district board policy 5123 and California Education Code 48070 (j), which states in part: “Nothing in this section shall be construed to prohibit the retention of a pupil … if such retention is determined to be appropriate for that pupil.”

The 48070 ed. code, which deals almost exclusively with retention of failing students, also states: “Nothing in this section shall be construed to prohibit a governing board from adopting promotion and retention policies that exceed the criteria established in this section.”

The introduction to 48070 reads: “The governing board of each school district and each county superintendent of schools shall adopt policies regarding pupil promotion and retention.”

So what are the policies of the San Dieguito Union High School District?

San Dieguito board policy 5123, like the Calif. Ed. Code, mainly addresses the issue of students who are failing academically. The introduction to the one-page policy reads: “The Board of Trustees of the San Dieguito Union High School District is committed to supporting student academic growth. The board expects students to progress through each grade within one school year. To accomplish this goal, instruction will meet or exceed the California State Standards and include strategies for addressing academic deficiencies when needed.”

It goes on to state: “When a student fails to make progress toward grade level standards in any grade, appropriate interventions will be provided.” And then there’s a line about what to consider if a student is recommended to skip ahead a grade.

Clearly, the focus of the district’s board policy on retention, as it is with the Calif. Ed. Code, centers around failing students, not retention by choice.

“I’m not reading anywhere in either of those, especially your district’s policy, that parents have the right to retain their kids against administration recommendations,” I wrote to Schmitt.

“Exactly,” he replied. “Policy gives us no authority to prevent parents from retaining. So we refer to Ed. Code 48070 (j).”

Does that mean the district is forced to allow it if there is no specific policy to prohibit it?

Of course, could anyone reasonably expect the writers of the ed. code to predict that parents would want their kids held back when they are academically successful? Voluntary retention of non-failing students is completely contrary to generally held assumptions.

While it may be true that this year is an aberration and will not set a precedent for others to follow in future years, I’m not convinced it will end here. Schmitt said there was a similar request at CVMS the year before Francis took over. Specific board policy may now be required to close this loophole.

That we are all paying for successful students to repeat a grade in a public school is bad practice and an abuse of public funds. Add this one to the long list of policies that denies protection of taxpayer investment in education.

Marsha Sutton can be reached at:



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