Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Making the Grade

       This past year, Jaren, a late born, got far too many yellows for Deanne's and my comforts. First graders were awarded colors based on their behaviors exhibited at school each day. I don't even know all the colors, the scheme was so complicated, but green to olive green represented good, yellow represented warning—there had been some problems, and orange to red represented bad. In my book every day ought to be green or better. We made our expectations clear to Jaren. We instituted swift, sure consequences every time he earned yellow or worse. Nonetheless, Jaren continued to exhibit unacceptable behavior—talking out of turn, fooling around, not paying attention, not following instructions, having to be told twice to settle down, etc.—sometimes even on back-to-back days.
     When I was a child such misbehaviors were never a problem. Everyone always behaved—or else! And that “or else” was inconceivable—no one (never me at least) allowed it to get that far. And none of my teachers ever struck a child. Just a stern look or raised voice had always been enough. And notes were rarely sent home since behaviors were nearly always within acceptable range and those that weren't were easily rectified.
     Despite Jaren's youth relative to his peers, his academics have been slightly better that average. He's got a lively, social personality so that explains his restlessness in class—same as at home, time and again, always getting in trouble even when in time-out. And since we've been strict, we've concluded it's his innate excitability and underdeveloped impulse control in handling boredom, waiting, or impatience that causes his misbehavior—not really his fault, just age-appropriate immaturity manifesting itself.
     We ruled out medical causes such as attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity because the symptoms don't correspond. (He can sit still for long stretches; he has a good but not great attention span; his teachers say he's fine; and his pediatrician suggests its non-medical and not something to worry about for now). Nonetheless, we've been concerned and exasperated at times.
     Now the Hawaii state legislature has been fiddling with the kindergarten cut-off age for years. Before 2006, it was five by December 31; from 2006 it was five by August 1 but December 31 for junior kindergarten; then in 2014 it was five by August 1. The 2006 change was part of an ill-fated junior kindergarten program (canceled from 2014) that was supposed to provide free public preschool for late-borns, a great idea that I supported, but that didn't pan out.
            At least two-thirds of schools, claiming inadequate classrooms and staffing, simply stuck late-borns in with early borns and treated them the same as before: no separate late-born specific curriculum to prepare them for kindergarten; report cards were virtually identical for all students; and late-borns that did fine were advanced to first grade. Parents of late-borns soon discovered that nearly all junior kindergarteners were advanced to first grade as a matter of course. Thus, some began waiting an additional year, forgoing registering their four-year-olds for school and skipping junior kindergarten altogether, for why enter a child sooner than necessary?
     As stated in my prior Swearing essay, we didn't consider this option desirable for Jaren. We therefore entered him into junior kindergarten and hoped for the best, which turned out fine, and at year's end, he was promoted to first grade at age five with our blessings. But this past year in first grade, as mentioned above, he failed to behave consistently well. I concluded now's the time to retain him by having him repeat first grade. My good brilliant friend Darren in high school is a late-born and by our senior year, his biological immaturity showed—especially when it came to girls. My dad skipped a grade in elementary school (which, given the new August 1 cutoff date, is in essence what Jaren will have done if promoted to second grade relative to his class and schoolmates), struggled throughout high school and early college as a result, always felt uncomfortable about it and disadvantaged in the long run, and believed it had been done more so for administrative convenience—the small outer-island school with multiple grades per class having been so small—than to benefit him.  
     So I wrote a note stating our preference to Jaren's teacher who scheduled a conference for the two of us, Deanne, and the principal. I stated our case at the meeting emphasizing our desire to do what was optimal for Jaren long-term, but neither would budge: Jaren would move on for DOE policy limited retention to only students that exhibited the most extraordinary academic and/or behavioral deficits, which didn't apply to Jaren's occasional misbehaviors.
     Here's where DOE policy differs from Hawaii's top private schools and partly accounts for rating differences between them. Private schools (and their students and parents often enough) take seeming pride in student retention, meaning less than stellar students are readily held back to repeat grades, for promoting such students would simply draw down the school's performance ratings that are virtually always grade level based and not age based. (Not to mention private schools cherry pick their student bodies, forgoing special needs, English as a second language, and other lower-performing students.) A high schooler that attended the top rated school in the state said one of his classmates had repeated his current grade level three times and still wasn't smart.
     I told Deanne I think we could easily find some principal in the DOE or a private school that would enter Jaren as a first grader but that that would be even less optimal than keeping him at his current excellent school, so we will just have to live with it and do what we can on our side. And that I sense he'll turn out fine in the long-term (as both my high school friend and my father have)—I just don't think it's optimal. And that when I asked Dad (a former elementary school principal) about it, he affirmed he'll do fine either way. Though not what we had wanted, at least we tried.

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