CHICAGO -- At Morse Elementary in a northwest side neighborhood where 97 percent of the children are poor, principal Leon Hudnall Jr. is trying to keep failure at bay.
"The more you work with your kids, the fewer kids you're going to have retained," Hudnall said recently as more than 200 children crowded into the basement for the supper offered with after-school lessons. For failing students, the Lighthouse program offers a way to pass to the next grade.Chicago is heading into the fourth year of a nationally watched program to end social promotion, the practice of advancing unprepared students to the next grade so they can stay with their age group. Almost 25,000 children are heading for the mandatory summer program when school lets out this week.
President Clinton wants other schools to follow suit, ending social promotion if they receive federal money. But districts face the problem of what to do if large numbers of students fail -- some for a second or third time.
With more retentions, the choice gets complicated. School systems must keep buildings open during afternoons and summers, find extra space for kids who otherwise would be promoted or graduated, and keep frustrated repeaters from dropping out.
"The big question is whether this constitutes educational triage," said Linda Lenz, editor of Catalyst, a newsletter that chronicles school reform in Chicago. "Are these kids being helped or sacrificed to help other kids?"
Already some districts are backing off. A Los Angeles plan would have required at least 150,000 students -- 40 percent of the elementary school population -- to attend summer school to help them avoid flunking. Now, the program will be voluntary.
In New York City, officials upset parents when they estimated a third of students -- 300,000 -- could fail under a plan to use test scores, attendance rates and report cards to curb social promotions. This July, 52,000 children will attend a $70 million program.
Nearly 20 percent of U.S. students are held back a grade each year. In large cities, as many as 50 percent will flunk at least once before they graduate or drop out.
Promotion in Utah promotion is based on school a board-superintendent decision.
Arkansas, Colorado, Florida and Louisiana have cracked down on the practice in recent years. In Texas, Gov. George W. Bush just won a plan to ban social promotions statewide.
But more educators argue that instead of simple retention, most underachieving students need systemic remedies. One-on-one tutoring, parent counseling and extended school days must be part of any plan.
This year, the Lighthouse program made a difference for Kimberly Harrison, a 10-year-old at Morse, her principal said. Kimberly, who made it to fourth grade after a second try, recently passed a test that decided whether she could go on to fifth.
"We're learning a lot in here. We do division," said the shy girl with tiny braids. "I think I'm going to score high on the test, because the division got easier."
In fact at Morse this year, reading scores went up 13.4 percentage points, meaning fewer students in the kindergarten-through-sixth grade school could be held back.
"People are looking for that magic bullet. It's just old-fashioned hard work," said Hellen DeBerry of the Chicago schools' office of accountability.
Those who want to curb social promotion say that without retention, children are fooled into thinking they have learned necessary skills or get the message that achievement doesn't count. At worst, they say, colleges and businesses will spend millions on remedial education for students who never "got it" in the first place.