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'Social promotion' fails to raise students' abilities


AT THE END of the week, Lee Williams and Tom Sloane looked around Southern High School and saw that it was good. Relatively speaking, that is. The halls were quiet, the kids mainly sitting in their classrooms, and on North Avenue, where the great public school thinkers gather, they all had decided they would finally get serious about educating children.

Williams heads the math department at Southern; Sloane is the school's mental health counselor. On North Avenue last week, at school headquarters, the school board voted to spend $8 million for extra help for failing children, intending to end the practice known as "social promotion."

In academic circles, "social promotion" is a phrase spoken in whispers. It defies every reason people devote their lives to teaching. In the traditional manner, youngsters passed or failed on the basis of learning. With "social promotion," they pass so that the schools can get rid of them as quickly as possible.

This is where it has fallen on those such as Williams and Sloane, and all those who labor in the city's secondary schools. As a math teacher, Williams expresses himself most comfortably with numbers. On Friday, he mentioned last year's incoming freshmen at Southern and their success rate on the Maryland Functional Math Test. Freshmen are ninth-graders; the test measures the ability to do sixth-grade math. Last year, only 30 percent at Southern passed even that pitiful test.

Sloane measures problems differently. As the school's mental health counselor, he deals with the things outside of school that affect classroom performance.

"Emotional stuff," he was saying. He and Williams sat in a little room where Sloane conducts group therapy sessions. "Conflict resolution, anger management, that sort of thing," he said. "And bereavement. A lot of bereavement. A lot of these kids are bereaving friends and family who have had violent and traumatic things happen, and they don't know what to do with it."

Much of this relates to the school board's action last week. The $8 million it will spend to help failing children was tied specifically to what school chief Carmen V. Russo declared: "The end of social promotion is critical."

Because, as now constituted, you have elementary school kids who do not learn the simplest elements of arithmetic, and then arrive in the high schools and are expected to handle algebra. This cannot be done. And so we wind up with 12th-graders whose chief mathematical skill is long division, who then attempt to enter the job market and find no one out there wants them.

"Yes," Sloane was saying now, "we have plenty of 12th-graders with fourth- and fifth-grade-level math skills. And it comes from elementary school, when nobody pressed them, and it comes from families that aren't working. The kids have not been served properly. They haven't been given the tools. They come into the ninth grade, and they've been set up for failure."

In the city schools, this has been an open secret for no more than, oh, the past 25 years. Some of it was well-intended overcompensation. The thought was: Most of these kids are poor, they come from troubled homes, let's not expect too much of them. It was an insult to the kids' intellectual abilities, and maybe even patronizing racism.

But it evolved into something else: exasperation. These kids act out in class. Who can teach in such an environment? When we hold them back, they turn increasingly sullen. They pick fights with classmates. Let's move them along. They haven't learned anything, but at least we cut down on behavior problems.

"And they get here," Williams said, "and there's no way they can do high school math. The schools have cheated them, and so have a lot of their families. These kids are capable of doing the work. They are. But, every day, they have struggles way beyond school."

Williams has been teaching at Southern for three decades. He's a 1966 Poly graduate.

"You know the difference?" he asked. "At Poly, we were kids from blue-collar families, but our parents had expectations for us. They wanted their kids to do better than they had. They didn't want them to work in the steel mills, the way they were. And, of course, we don't even have those jobs anymore."

The world is a far more complex place now. The high school diploma is merely a step to the college education, and not a ticket to the good life. The world is wired now. At week's end, city school officials proposed plans to turn Southern High into a citywide technology magnet school. It ties in with a larger plan to develop a "digital harbor" along the city's abandoned industrial waterfront.

Sitting in the mental health office at Southern, Williams and Sloane pronounced this pretty hopeful stuff. That, and the business about abolishing "social promotion."

Southern High sits in the midst of Federal Hill, one of the city's great modern renaissance communities. One day, some of those yuppies flocking to Federal Hill might begin sending their kids to the neighborhood high school.

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