Some New Haven children will wistfully wave their classmates goodbye as they repeat the school year and try to learn the reading skills they failed to master.Ê

New Haven elementary and middle schools are forcing 309 students to stay back a grade in an attempt to catch and ameliorate reading difficulties early. This is in response to a recent Connecticut law giving individual school districts the prerogative to determine their own retention policies. Ê

During the 1998-1999 school year, the district scrapped its former policy of allowing students who are reading at or a year below grade level to continue onto the next grade and adopted a tougher approach to combat illiteracy. The bold move is also a reaction to the larger national and state efforts to curtail the number of illiterate graduates emerging from public schools.Ê

The retention of nearly six percent of the district’s 5,199 third though fifth graders was determined by scores on the Connecticut Mastery Test and teacher evaluations. Those who did not pass the exam are required to go to summer school, and, if at the end of the intensive summer session they are still unable to read at grade level, students must repeat the grade.

Politicians have criticized the public schools in New Haven for not producing sufficiently literate citizens and for promoting students regardless of performance.

“They’ve done that for 15 years now in New Haven and it’s been a disaster,” mayoral candidate Joel Schiavone ’58 said. “It’s not because of poverty, it’s the schools’ fault.”

Last year, 441 third-graders failed the mastery test and attended summer school. Of these students, 201 were still unable to meet state reading standards and repeated the third grade. School officials said the lower number of retainees — 43 for fourth grade and 65 for fifth grade — indicates the success of efforts to detect and address reading problems early. Three-fourths of fifth graders and over half of third graders were able to pass the proficiency examination after attending summer school.

Those who must repeat a year are provided both one-on-one tutoring and individualized reading plans.Ê

Critics nevertheless denounce retention policies as destructive to student self-esteem. Many Connecticut school districts have chosen not to implement retention measures and have instead placed their students in remedial programs in their own grades.

The New Haven’s public school district is pushing ahead with its policy and coming down hard on “social promotion,” the practice of allowing failing students to continue to the next grade.Ê

Education will be a major issue in the coming mayoral election, and both Democratic incumbent John DeStefano Jr. and Republican Schiavone agree that students who are not performing well must be retained.Ê

“It’s the only important issue in New Haven,” Schiavone said. “Solve this, and you’ll solve all our problems.”

Julio Gonzalez ’99, DeStefano’s campaign manager, also supported the stricter retention policy.

“In order for literacy to be successful, there must be accountability and investment,” he said. “Accountability means strict academic and social standards and investment means getting the resources to students.”