The schools below have above-average poverty rates for city schools but below-average retention rates for 3rd grade. Catalyst contacted their principals to ask why.

Dewey in New City reduced retention by focusing resources in the 3rd grade; the 32 students with the lowest scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills at the end of 2nd grade are placed into two classes of 16 each for 3rd grade, says Principal Howard Jackson.

Graham in New City spreads its resources more evenly with a reduced class size of 20 to 23 at each grade level. Formal reading instruction begins in kindergarten. Principal William Clair says, “The kids are turned on by it and [so are] parents.”

Carver Primary in Riverdale reduced its retention rate sharply last year. Principal Linda Randolph attributes the drop to a combination of programs—Direct Instruction, a phonics- based reading series, and Reading Recovery, which provides struggling 1st-graders with one-on-one tutoring from a highly trained teacher. While advocates of each program feel the approaches are diametrically opposed, Randolph thinks they complement each other. “No matter what reading program is used in the school, some children are not successful.”

A drop in student mobility in 3rd grade also helped, she says. Because of the promotion policy, “we try to council our 3rd-grade parents, ‘Please, if you have to move, wait until the end of the school year.'”

To boost student achievement, Burnham in South Deering relies heavily on professional development and teacher collaboration, according to Assistant Principal Ivry Hobbs. For instance, through “peer coaching,” teachers observe and critique each other’s lessons. “Helping trios” give groups of three teachers time to share classroom problems and offer solutions.

Issues that interfere with students learning are also key, he adds. A staff support team, including a nurse and a social worker, helps teachers identify and remedy individual problems.

Leland in Austin takes a diagnostic approach similar to Burnham’s. At both schools, students who read below level are offered remediation rather than grade-level reading instruction. At the same time, teachers try to move quickly to catch students up, administrators say.

Teachers at Leland try to uncover each student’s particular reading difficulty, whether it’s speed, accuracy, pausing at the right point, or drawing inferences, says Principal Gloria Archbold.

Leland also offers extensive professional development at the school, Archbold continues, and some of it comes from her, as she has a reading background. One significant strategy, she says, is teaching students to use “graphic organizers” or diagrams that help them to organize and evaluate information in a reading.

Most principals contacted for this report say they hold back some 1st and 2nd-graders, although not necessarily more than before the board’s retention policy was adopted. Archbold, however, says she doesn’t believe in retention. “Whatever it is that you were going to do when you retained them, that’s what you should be doing anyway.”

Principal Samuel Jordan of Owens in West Pullman says he does hold back more 1st- and 2nd-graders now, although only 5 or so at each level. Citywide, retention in the early grades has risen since 1995 from 4 percent to 6 percent in 1st grade and from 2 percent to 4 percent in 2nd grade, according to the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

While all principals report spending time on test preparation, such as short readings with multiple-choice questions, Jordan cites such work as a major reason for low retention at Owens. “We accept that the Iowa is the only game in town when it comes to promotion,” he says.

In particular, 3rd-graders needed practice marking in answers on an answer sheet separate from the test booklet, he found. And to help students pace themselves on test day, “We purchased timers for every classroom so the children get used to completing a certain amount of work in a set amount of time.”

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