HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — As Braylon Price remembers, he struggled with just about everything the first full school year of the pandemic. With minimal guidance and frequent disruptions, he struggled to keep up with his homework and complete his assignments on time.
It was so difficult that his parents asked him to repeat sixth grade – a decision they credit with putting him on a better path.
“At first I didn’t really want to do it,” said Braylon, now 13. “But later in the year I thought it would probably be better for me if I did.”
The number of students retained for a school year has increased across the country. Traditionally, experts have said that repeating a grade can harm children’s social life and academic future. But many parents, empowered by new pandemic-era laws, have called for changes to help their children recover from the tumult. distance learningquarantines and school staff shortages.
Twenty-four of the 28 states that provided data for the most recent academic year saw an increase in the number of retained students, according to an analysis by The Associated Press. Three states — South Carolina, West Virginia and Delaware — saw retention more than double.
Pennsylvania, where the Price family lives, passed a pandemic-era law allowing parents to choose to have their children redone. The following year, the number of students retained in the state jumped from about 20,000, to over 45,000 students.
Braylon’s mother does not regret having taken advantage of the new law.
“The best decision we could have made for him,” said Kristi Price, who lives in Bellefonte, central Pennsylvania.
While the two girls in the family managed to keep up with school despite limited supervision, Braylon struggled. He returned to school in person for the first full school year of the pandemic, but it was “tasteless”, his mother said. Students have been quarantined from time to time, and teachers have tried to keep pace with students learning at home, online and in hybrid models. That winter, Braylon suffered a wrestling spinal cord injury that forced him to return to distance learning.
During his sixth grade rehearsal, Braylon had an individualized education program that helped him focus more. Having more individual attention from teachers also helped. Socially, he said the transition was easy, as most of his friends were in lower grades or had previously attended different schools.
Research in the world of education has been critical in getting students to repeat grades.
The risk is that students who have been retained have a double risk of dropping out, said Arthur Reynolds, a professor at the Human Capital Research Collaborative at the University of Minnesota, citing studies of students in Chicago and Baltimore.
“Kids see it as a punishment,” Reynolds said. “It reduces their academic motivation and it does not increase their educational advancement.”
But retention proponents say none of the research was conducted during a pandemic, when many children struggled with Zoom lessons and some stopped logging on altogether..
“So many kids have struggled and had so many problems,” said Florida State Senator Lori Berman, a Democrat from Delray Beach. Berman drafted legislation to make it easier for parents to ask K-5 students to repeat a 2021-22 school year. “I don’t think there’s any stigma in holding your child back at this point.”
Generally, parents can request that children be retained, but the final decision rests with principals, who make decisions based on factors such as academic progress. California and New Jersey have also passed laws making it easier for parents to require their children to repeat a grade, although the option only became available last year.
In suburban Kansas City, Celeste Roberts decided last year to hold another round of sophomores for her son, who she says was struggling even before the pandemic. When virtual learning was a failure, he spent the year learning at a slower pace with his grandmother, a retired teacher who bought goats to keep things fun.
Roberts said repeating the year helped his son academically and his friends barely noticed him.
“Even with peers, some of them were like, ‘Wait, shouldn’t you be in third grade?’ And he’s just like, ‘Well, I didn’t go to school because of COVID,'” she said. “And they’re kind of like, ‘OK, cool.’ You know, they’re moving on. It’s not a thing. So it’s been really great socially. Even with the parent circles. Everyone’s like, ‘Great. Do what your kid has to do.’
Ultimately, there shouldn’t be just two options for repeating a grade or moving on to the next, said Alex Lamb, who has studied research on grade repetition through his work with the Center for Education, Policy Analysis, Research and Evaluation at the University of Connecticut to help advise school districts.
“None of these options are good,” she said. “A great option is to let students move on and then introduce some of these supports that are research-backed, effective, and enable academic and social-emotional growth for students and then for communities.”
In the Fox Chapel Area School District in Pennsylvania, two students were held back at the request of educators, while eight families decided that their students would repeat a grade. Six others discussed the new legislation with the school and ultimately decided not to retain their students.
“As a school district, we take retention very seriously,” Superintendent Mary Catherine Reljac said. She said the district involves parents, a team of educators, school counselors and principals to help decide what’s best for each child.
Price says retaining Braylon helped him get an Individualized Education Program, or IEP. The special education plan gave him more support as he navigated sixth grade again. When he thinks about the difference between rounds one and two of sixth grade, Braylon said he felt the extra support was instrumental, noting that he sometimes likes having one-on-one help from teachers.
“In online school, you weren’t really doing that,” he said. “You did the job and then you gave it back.”
He doesn’t want to be given the answer, he says, but guided enough that he can figure it out for himself.
“I think because of the pandemic, we as parents could see how much he was struggling and we could recognize that he was barely keeping his head above water and that he had need more help to be successful on his,” Price said.
Hollingsworth reported from Mission, Kansas. Schultz is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues.
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