When Cassandra Pierce and her daughter Darnetta Brimley looked at Darnetta's ninth-grade report card from Southern High School, they thought a terrible mistake had been made.
"She doesn't deserve to go into the 10th grade," said a disbelieving and infuriated Pierce, who works for the Internal Revenue Service.
"I don't understand it," said her daughter, who worked -- well, not as hard as she might have in the ninth grade.
In fact, this was her second journey through the ninth grade. First time around, she flunked math, chemistry and computers and was thus held back.
This time around, she flunked math and computers, getting 55 in both courses. Sixty is passing. In health, she got 60. In English, she got a 61, though her teacher noted she "failed to make up missed work, requires more study at home." In government, her best subject, she got 71, though her teacher noted, "absence is too frequent; she failed to make up missed work." In biology, she got a 64, though her teacher noted, "absence is too frequent; failed to make up missed work." She missed 29 days of class, including 15 in the fourth quarter.
"I was ill," Darnetta explained.
"What kind of a school system passes a child with this kind of performance?" Cassandra Pierce asked. She specifically asked that her daughter's name and performance be reported in the newspaper.
"It's not the system," explained Nat Harrington, spokesman for the city's public schools. "The decision to pass or fail is made at the school level. We do not automatically pass all kids. That's absolutely false. We do what others around the country do. If the kid meets the requirements for passing, he passes."
Harrington is a little defensive about this, owing to a variety of problems. At at least two city high schools this year, clerical errors resulted in scores of kids being told they passed, when they'd actually failed. Now comes the nightmare of fitting these kids back into their proper grades.
Also, such a mistake comes as a sort of ironic exclamation point to reports, over the past decade and more, of various schools passing students as a sort of social gesture -- either because the system is fed up with repeat failures and with kids who act out in unhealthy ways, and thus wants to purge them from the system as quickly as possible, or because the system wants to make students feel good about themselves.
"They passed me," says Darnetta Brimley, "the way they pass a lot of kids, just so they don't have to see them no more. I don't understand how I passed. I don't think I should have passed. I tried for a while, but then I gave up."
The principal at Southern High is Darline C. Lyles. Yesterday, she said, "Technically, if she has the credits, she goes to the next level. We can give remediation, but we can't hold her back. This wasn't social promotion. Middle school, maybe, but in senior high, we don't have social promotions. Technically, she has the grades to pass. She only failed two courses, not three."
But how would she react, Lyles was asked, if her own child made such low grades but was still passed?
"If my child made those grades and missed all that time?" she said. "Well, I assume her teachers gave her a chance to make up the work."
But her teachers' comments are repeatedly specific: "Failed to make up missed work; absence is too frequent."
"If it was my child," said Lyles, "I'd want her to pass but get help and make sure everything is done that should have been done. But I wouldn't want her held back."
"My daughter," says Cassandra Pierce, "should not pass. She hasn't learned anything. She is passing against my wishes. The system says I don't know what's best for my child. They want to know why I'm giving them so much trouble.
"Well, my daughter didn't do better because she didn't have to. And, like any child, she's happy to go along with that. She'd turn in poor work and get 80 or 85, and her teachers would praise her constantly for bad work.
"I've had meetings with people at the school. I told them she didn't deserve to pass. They said, well, she's really trying. See, they don't expect anything from these kids."
Lyles said that wasn't so. She said she welcomed input from Cassandra Pierce. She said, "I'm glad we have parents who are concerned."
xTCHD: Underperforming child passes, her mother is angry