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Second chances

FLUNK A student once, shame on him. Flunk that student a couple more times, and shame on the school system that hasn't figured out how to lead him back on track.

Without question, the Baltimore City school board made the right decision when it halted the practice of social promotion three years ago.

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Holding students back sends an unequivocal message that failure will not be rewarded - and is most effective when accompanied by intensive remedial help, such as summer school or before-school tutoring.

It's becoming clear, however, that city schools haven't done enough to ensure that the toughest cases are intercepted, diagnosed and corrected. Predictably, a subgroup of chronic failures has emerged.

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About 2,700 city students have been advanced a grade this year despite failing to meet promotion standards, including more than 1,500 who've been held back before one or more times, The Sun reported last week. The school board has wisely, if belatedly, sought state help to develop policies for dealing with them.

Believe it or not, what it will learn is that promoting such students is sometimes the correct thing to do. There is a recognized limit to the effectiveness of holding students back multiple times - a chapter is devoted to this in a federal Department of Education report from 1999, urging schools to end social promotion: "For students who continue to be unsuccessful in meeting standards, repeating a grade still is not an effective strategy."

The Long Beach Unified School District, cited in the report, has had success by creating in-school academies to oversee individualized study plans for students who have failed; these evolved after the district for six years operated a magnet "preparatory academy" for eighth-graders who failed and were not ready to start high school.

What works, says Long Beach, Calif., schools spokesman Chris Eftychiou, is a nonpunitive approach of diagnosing the students' needs, then immersing them in customized instruction plans until regular schooling is possible. The student may remain with his peers, with a modified course load. Counselors, mentors or family members are often enlisted to help the child handle personal pressures and distractions that thwart his learning goals.

While addressing the needs of its most troubled children, Baltimore's school board must also recognize that steps it takes to improve instruction and teacher training citywide also will help reduce the number of chronic failures. Ending social promotion in Baltimore was never designed to mean sending children back to classrooms where mistakes are repeated over and over.


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