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.

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