Saleemah Muñoz

Saleemah Muñoz arrives for the first day of school last September looking polished and prepared, dressed in a blue jumper and white blouse, a new backpack slung over her shoulder and her hair neatly braided with rows of white beads. She looks a bit scared, though, and a little glum as she takes her seat in Judy Owens’ 3rd-grade class at Jordan Community School in East Rogers Park.

Her guarded demeanor is understandable: This is Saleemah’s second time in 3rd grade, after twice scoring below the passing threshold on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. (The district recently scrapped the test.) Saleemah is one of 3,180 3rd-graders in the Chicago Public Schools to be retained in the 2005-06 school year and the only 3rd-grader held back at Jordan.

Asked over the summer how she felt about the possibility of being held back, Saleemah whispered a one-word answer: “Ashamed.”

Whether or not retention will help or hurt Saleemah over the long haul remains to be seen. Mayor Richard M. Daley called for an end to “social promotion” when he assumed control of Chicago schools, and the district reintroduced retention in 1996. But the bulk of research on the practice shows that it increases the likelihood that students will drop out of school, and that retained students continue to lag behind academically. Two studies released in 2004 by the Consortium on Chicago School Research showed that neither social promotion nor retention closed the achievement gap between low-performing students and their peers.

The research also showed that teachers generally favor retention, and those at Jordan are no exception.

“[Retention] gives students additional instruction and helps them in the long run,” contends Jordan Principal Maurice Harvey, a tall, imposing figure who patrols the sidewalks before and after school, keeping an eye on kids and greeting parents. “One of my teachers recently commented about a 6th-grader retained a year ago, and what a difference it has made in his academic performance.

Giving him another year to catch up has built his self-esteem and made him more sure of himself.”

Still, Jordan teachers acknowledge that holding students back at 3rd grade and later can be detrimental.

“I think 3rd grade is the very latest that you can keep a kid back without them feeling bad about themselves,” says 3rd-grade teacher Elizabeth Lancaster. “They start to think they’re stupid, that it’s their fault, and they’d rather be the bad kid than the dumb kid, so they start acting out. On the other hand, I don’t believe in passing kids who can’t read.”

Chicago Public Schools has revised its retention policy several times since ending “social promotion” in 1996, giving more leeway for low-scoring students to be promoted. But the district shows no signs of scrapping the policy, and this past fall, reintroduced math scores as a retention factor.

Although some students may just need extra time to catch up to peers, the majority of struggling students require intensive support during their early years in school before they fall too far behind, especially to avoid being held back. As schools grapple with finding the resources and the best ways of providing that extra help, thousands of students each year continue to struggle.

March 2005: Ability grouping is the favored strategy

Lancaster, a newcomer to Jordan, is Saleemah’s teacher her first time in 3rd grade. Lancaster, who taught for four years in a Boston suburb, says it didn’t take her long to notice that her Jordan students presented a different set of challenges. One is classroom management: Lancaster frequently has to warn several students about loud and disruptive behavior. (A year later, she finds out the same students are a handful for their 4th-grade teacher as well.)

“These kids are just as smart [as her Boston students] but there are so many other things they’re dealing with,” Lancaster explains. “Some are very angry. Some didn’t sleep the night before and come to school very tired.”

She describes Saleemah as “a sweetheart” who usually does her homework and is well-behaved. Yet she worries about her. Saleemah is behind her peers in math as well as reading, and Lancaster wonders if she’s doing much reading at home.

Lancaster encourages her students to take books home at night and then take computer quizzes on them at school, allowing them to independently move through books at increasingly difficult reading levels while earning awards. Saleemah sometimes takes the books home but doesn’t seem interested in taking the quiz, and when she does, she often doesn’t pass. Lancaster isn’t sure whether she is actually reading the books, or just not understanding them.

Saleemah does read at home, but not as much as she should, and spends too much time watching television and playing video games, says her mother Natalie Muñoz, who emigrated from Belize 12 years ago and juggles a part-time job with GED and nursing classes at Truman College. Natalie has three other daughters at Jordan, and lives in a three-bedroom apartment with them and the girls’ grandmother.

Saleemah is in Lancaster’s lowest-level reading group, which also includes two of three retained students.

One day in late March, while Lancaster meets with the highest-level reading group, Saleemah and the rest of the class are at their desks completing assignments listed on the chalkboard: a worksheet on the Chicago canal, a page in their spelling workbooks, writing in journals and reading independently. Saleemah’s group is reading “The Chalk Box Kid,” a book at about the 2nd-grade level. In comparison, the highest-level group is reading “Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” between a 3rd- and 4th-grade level.

However, Saleemah is having trouble. Instead of writing answers on her worksheet, in some places she just restates the questions. And she never answers in complete sentences, as the instructions ask.

When it’s time for Saleemah’s group to read with Lancaster, the five students sit with her and take turns reading from their journals, sharing what they liked or didn’t like about “The Chalk Box Kid.”

Next, Lancaster gives them a quick phonics lesson. Then, students take turns reading aloud. When it’s Saleemah’s turn, she reads slowly and loses her place a few times. Lancaster suggests she use a bookmark to keep her place.

This small-group work, instead of whole-class instruction, is the method that’s being pushed at Jordan to improve literacy. For the last three years, National-Louis University has been working with Jordan and nine other schools in the Advanced Reading Development Demonstration Project, which matches schools with local universities that provide training and help set up best-practice literacy programs. (A total of 47 schools are participating.) The project, sponsored by the Chicago Community Trust, has had mixed results. More teachers are using what are considered best practices, but test scores for schools in the project generally improved at a rate similar to that of a comparable group of schools not in the program, according to an August 2005 evaluation report by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Jordan teachers were trained to conduct small-group reading instruction, which allows children to be taught at their instructional level and is the best way to boost reading ability, say National-Louis facilitators. Lancaster used this reading group strategy in Boston, so she’s already comfortable with it.

“We know that it makes a difference if kids are getting instruction that’s appropriate” to their developmental and instructional level, says Donna Ogle of National-Louis, a coordinator of the Advanced Reading project. As for the evaluation, she observes, “There was some improvement in reading scores, but it wasn’t as dramatic as we’d like.”

As part of the program, each child is tested in reading twice a year. Saleemah reads “painstakingly” slowly, says Lancaster, who estimates she’s about eight months behind grade level. But she is making progress; for instance, slowly picking up the phonics lessons and correctly sounding out new words. “She isn’t flat-lining.”

Wanda Williams, the primary grades reading coordinator at Jordan, recalls that Saleemah has had difficulty with reading since 1st grade. Saleemah did get some extra help, as experts recommend.

“We’ve worked with her, put her in small groups, and her 2nd-grade teacher spent time working individually with her,” says Williams. “Intervention needs to begin early, and that’s something we’re working on.” Since Saleemah seems to make some progress each year and shows no signs of having a learning disability, such as reversing the order of letters in words, Williams says her teachers have not suggested she undergo special education testing.

Research shows that “time on task” is key to helping struggling readers, whether that time is spent in small groups, large groups or working one-on-one, says Joyce Hieshima, an education professor in the department of reading at Northeastern Illinois University. Individualizing the instruction so it’s focused on the weaknesses of a particular student also is important.

“You don’t necessarily want to pull kids out of class because then they’re made to understand there’s a problem,” says Hieshima. It’s often better to give the extra help within the classroom, she explains, with the teacher spending a little individual time each day with struggling students, or pairing up students with different abilities so they can help each other.

“Good teachers can assess the students’ needs [in reading] and provide a level of instruction that’s appropriate,” Hieshima says.

Lancaster would like Saleemah to participate in an after-school tutoring program led by Jordan teachers, saying she told Saleemah’s mother about it in the fall but got no response. Saleemah’s mother, however, says she didn’t find out about the program until the middle of the year, and by then, she figured it was too late.

Only one of Lancaster’s three retained students goes to the after-school program. Principal Harvey, who says after-school tutoring is a good avenue for reaching students who need extra help, sends letters home and has teachers call parents but, “we can’t force parents” to enroll their students.

Hieshima says two hours a week after school could be enough to make a difference in a child’s achievement.

“It depends on what they’re doing, but, in general, any added time is good time,” she says.

April 2005: ‘They all know they can be held back’

Near the end of April, two weeks before the high-stakes Iowa test, Saleemah and the rest of her class take a practice test provided by the testing company. Lancaster is concerned about how slowly Saleemah and several others read.

“Don’t … read … like … robots,” she tells them before the practice test, illustrating what not to do. She has kids who she knows can read well, but they might not be able to read quickly enough, particularly with the pressure of retention on their minds.

“They all know they can be held back. They talk about it,” Lancaster says.

The students have 45 minutes to read passages and answer 30 questions. Saleemah finishes with several minutes to spare. Another slow reader, who got so tense during the March ISAT test that he cried throughout the testing period and didn’t answer the questions, gets through with no tears today. Lancaster gives him a hug and lets him know she’s proud of him for trying.

One of the retained students, a boy with emotional problems, clearly wants no part of the testing. He makes his first answer sheet into a paper airplane. Lancaster encourages him to finish, and asks him if he ate breakfast and whether he feels OK. But when she gives him another sheet, he quickly fills in the bubbles without reading the questions, then spends the rest of the time rolling his pencil back and forth on his desk.

At the end of May, Lancaster learns that six of her pupils, including two of the retained students, scored below the 35th percentile and will have to go to summer school. One of the six just transferred into Jordan; Lancaster barely knows him. Two are good readers who just bombed on the test, she says.

Saleemah scored below the 25th percentile and will have to retake the test after summer school. She finds out the bad news when her mother receives a letter in the mail. Natalie says her daughter is disappointed, but she tells her to work hard over the summer so she can go to 4th grade with her friends.

While disappointed at the results, Lancaster hasn’t lost faith in her reading program. Most of her students made good progress in reading during the year, she says. And looking ahead to next year, Lancaster thinks she might add more phonics instruction, since that seems to be a problem area for many students, including Saleemah. She’s also thinking about adding a whole class reading lesson to each day’s schedule, to reinforce the phonics lessons.

July 2005: Summer school

Saleemah is one of 14 students in Judy Owens’ 3rd-grade summer school class. Saleemah says she doesn’t mind going to summer school, but she’d rather be playing in the park or going to the beach with her sisters.

The summer-school curriculum comes entirely from a thick, board-issued book that combines phonics, writing prompts, short reading passages and comprehension drills. The students sit at their desks for the three-hour school day, with a 10-minute bathroom break in the middle.

Owens isn’t sure how much the students can progress in only six weeks, and admits she doesn’t see a lot of movement in the students’ reading skills in that time.

At the end of the six weeks, four of the five students who had to retake the test end up passing, including the two good readers from Lancaster’s class, who pass by large margins. “They just freaked on the test the first time,” says Owens.

Only Saleemah failed again. Owens says she took the news calmly when she told her. But Natalie says Saleemah cried when she got home, and “feels terrible” about being retained. A letter from the school says she can ask for a waiver, but Natalie decides not to do it.

“What’s the point if she’ll struggle [in 4th grade]?” asks Natalie.

Lancaster says the situation “might be the best thing for her,” adding that Saleemah did make progress and rose from reading at a low 2nd-grade level to a low 3rd-grade level during last year.

Lancaster believes one solution to the retention dilemma might be to evaluate each child individually and consider factors such as personality before holding a child back. One slow reader in her class has an easily bruised ego and would be devastated by being retained, but Saleemah, she believes, might adjust to the setback.

September 2005: A veteran takes a different approach

For her second time in 3rd grade, Saleemah is in Owens’ class. She’s quiet for most of the first day. During lunch, as the other girls in her class talk around her, Saleemah munches on chicken nuggets and silently gives her cookies to a girl who asks if she can have them. At the end of the day, she says school is “okay” but she wishes she were in 4th grade with her friends.

This year, however, Saleemah will not be in a reading group. Owens has resisted the schoolwide push to use small-group instruction.

“I think I have a good, well-rounded program,” she says. “It seems to work.” Instead of using children’s books at varying levels, Owens uses a 3rd-grade basal reader for the whole class and gives everyone the same literacy lesson each day. Owens likes the basals, saying, “Everything [lessons in vocabulary, phonics, writing] you need is in there.”

Owens says she relied on the reading group strategy as a 2nd-grade teacher. Then, when she was switched to 3rd grade several years ago, she was told she had to use the same 3rd-grade materials for all students, no matter what their reading level. “Now, the pendulum has swung back,” she observes.

Owens does find ways to differentiate her instruction. Three of her slowest readers go next door to Lancaster’s room to join her lessons with the lower-level reading group. And Owens keeps several other struggling readers in the front of the room, near her chair, so she can watch and listen to them more closely.

One strategy the board touted two years ago was the notion of “personalized learning plans” for retained students. The plans were supposed to allow “the principal, teacher and parents to closely monitor the student’s progress,” according to a March 2004 press release. Saleemah does not have such a plan, and Lancaster’s retained students didn’t have them last year either. By and large, the plans never materialized, and most schools have no specific strategies for helping retained students, says G. Alfred Hess of Northwestern University’s Center for Urban School Policy. (Hess died in late January.)

When Chicago first started retaining students in 1996, students who were held back were supposed to receive accelerated instruction and have a chance to rejoin their peers for the second semester, says Hess. “That wasn’t universally practiced, but it was the policy. Now we’ve gone back to just doing the same grade all over again, and one wonders what good it’s doing to just repeat the grade.”

The learning plans were not meant to be “micromanaged from central office,” says CEO Arne Duncan. “I have a lot of confidence in teachers and principals to do the right things and not replicate a situation where the student wasn’t successful. They need to identify strengths and weaknesses, figure out what to do with the child, communicate with the parents and do collectively whatever they have to do to get the child on track.”

Late in the month, Natalie Muñoz comes to Jordan to meet with Owens and discuss Saleemah’s progress. Owens tells Natalie that Saleemah is doing well, and Natalie agrees to send Saleemah to the after-school program, which is taught by Owens and meets twice a week for two hours.

January 2006: A question of development?

A month after the start of school, Saleemah appears to be adjusting. During lunch, she now chats with several girls whom she says are her new best friends. In the classroom, she raises her hand several times and gives correct answers during the morning literacy lesson.

“Saleemah is unusual in that she’s not struggling,” says Owens, who has taught a number of retained students. Typically, she says, retained students continue to lag behind their peers and sometimes are later diagnosed with a learning disability.

Saleemah could turn out to be a late bloomer. “Some kids need more time,” says Donna Ogle at National-Louis. “There are maturational differences. In some kids, language develops more slowly.” Some slower students do particularly poorly on standardized tests. “If they’re confronted with a high-stakes test, it can affect their ability to respond.”

By mid-year, there is an encouraging sign: Saleemah is performing like an average 3rd-grader. Last year, she was among those at the bottom of her class.

Saleemah consistently attends after-school tutoring twice a week from 3 to 5 p.m. On one January day, 15 of the 18 3rd-graders in the program show up. After a 20-minute snack break in the cafeteria, they go to Owens’ classroom and open reading workbooks. Owens leads them through a discussion about oceans before they begin reading a five-page nonfiction story called “Ocean Scientists.”

The students break into small groups to read the story to each other. Saleemah hurries to join two friends at a table in the back. As they take turns reading, Saleemah helps her friend with words such as “important” and “explore” when the girl hesitates. When it’s Saleemah’s turn, she misreads a few of the easier words, saying “us” instead of “use” and “they” instead of “then.” But she reads at quicker pace than last year and handles the harder words with ease.

Says Owens, “So far, so good.”

Jody Temkin is a Catalyst contributing editor. E-mail her at

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.