Retention within Hamilton County

By Devoris Havis

According to the Annie E. Cassia Foundation, “students who do not read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to leave high school without a diploma than proficient readers. Poverty compounds the problem: Students who have lived in poverty are three times more likely to drop out or fail to graduate on time than their more affluent peers” (“Third Grade Reading”).  

Dr. Megan Bray’s current occupation is an assistant principal at Orchard Knob Elementary School. Her job includes preparing and monitoring teachers so that retention doesn't have to occur.

When she was in grade school, Dr. Bray says she didn’t really think about college. She only thought about moving from one grade to another. For her, grade school was from kindergarten to sixth grade. She didn’t really think about going to college until she got in high school. 

Dr. Bray says as she got older her thoughts on school changed a lot. Her plan was to join the AirForce. She went to the recruiting office and proceeded to do her physical and found out that she was overweight by 5 pounds, which in her words “broke my heart at that point.” She had no idea what her next step would be. Then she had a well respected lady within her family, her aunt, tell her that she was crazy for even thinking that she was going into the military and that she was going to go to college. Dr. Bray back then felt that she was not intelligent enough to be able to pursue any degree at the next level, turns out she was far from right about that. 

Dr. Bray says there was not a specific moment that made her want to go to school to be an educator. Nothing really clicked in her mind; her family just had a lot of respect for her aunt and pretty much whatever she said went and that was the end of it. Dr. Bray ended up being the first in her immediate family to go to college then. Now her brother has two degrees and her other sisters even have degrees too. Her mother even decided to go get a college degree. While she was in college she found herself just taking classes not even realizing the “intellect that the Lord has put in me to even be successful in college.”

In Hamilton County, schools use a test called a Light's Retention Scale that helps and determines whether a student should be retained or not. “The Light's Retention Scale that we use has more than 10 questions on it… it asks about the student's birthday, the student's physical size, and it also asks about siblings like first order and has the student ever been retained before. One of the things that we ask teachers is if the student is retained and is in your class again. What would you do differently?” Dr. Bray says. “What supports would be different for the student because it doesn't do any good just for the student to repeat the grade and get the same type of instruction. What are the things that must be taken into account?” 

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Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, students' growth and learning decreased tremendously. Dr. Bray says that she's been given the order this year to not retain any students no matter how they are progressing in classes. She states, “We got the same directive last year not to retain anyone because coming out of the this Covid age there are so many children that have not done well academically, and adults also have struggled in providing them with the academic support that they need. But prior to Covid it was still a rarity to retain children because study after study after study shows that retention is not necessarily the answer.” The best thing for schools to do in order for kids to get back on track is to place structures and supports that aid students to get back where they need to be.

At Orchard Knob, Dr. Bray and her faculty provide RTI, and that is a response to intervention. “Wherever the student is academically, we provide support for them through a pool out service to build that gap.” She encourages teachers to require their students to participate in online programs such as Fire and IReady. “Our two specific programs that we use that would address those areas of deficit so what we are charged to do as administrators is make sure that our teachers are trying and that they are providing support for kids with fidelity.” Dr. Bray’s advice to students struggling with their grade and at risk of being retained the next school year depends on their grade level. As students grow older and mature they seem to gain more understanding about their grades and how crucial they really are. “The advice that we give our students in elementary is to be about business. Being a Class Clown or not doing their work, laugh and enjoy it if you want to, but remember the reason why you are there. If you don't produce, if you don't do what the expectation is, then chances are you don't go on to the next level.”

Part of what makes the problem of retention in schools complicated is that at times we send mixed messages. We say retention doesn’t work, but within Hamilton County, this sometimes means allowing students who don’t do the work and didn’t earn it go on to the next grade with students who have actually put in the work. In addition, Dr. Bray brings up the interesting question, what does a grade even mean? Maybe grades should be based on monitoring skill level and mastery of skills in ways we haven't considered before.