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Separate but Equal: Separating 9th Grade "Repeaters" from Regular Freshmen

During my first year teaching in the Bronx, I had three classes, which alternated in meeting me for single- or double-period blocks each day. Two of these classes were for freshmen--thirty-three kids, ages 14-15, heterogeneously grouped but without too much variance in skill-level or maturity. My third class was freshman "repeaters"--kids who were as old as 18 or 19, and were attempting for the second, third, or even fourth time to fulfill their freshman English requirement. Some of them had quite legitimate reasons for being repeaters: They'd come to this country in their mid-teens and not yet grasped English well enough to pass the course their first time around, or had been forced to take a "leave of absence," so to speak, from formal education in order to care for a sick relative or give birth. Other reasons were less legit: One of my favorite kids readily admitted that he had slacked off during his early years of high school, and now was paying the price.

Because the school had--I believe--somewhat "given up" on these kids, their class met 13th and 14th period every single day, which was from 4:15-5:45pm, which basically guaranteed low attendance. I never even met most of the kids on the roster, but five of them showed up almost every day, and those kids were great--I never had better (or more hilarious) discussions with any group of kids, I don't think. Their age and relative maturity enabled us to tackle bigger ideas than their younger counterparts could; all in all, teaching them was an amazing experience.

That being said, despite my frustration at these kids being schedule in the 13th-14th period block, it would have been a disaster to mix them in with my "regular" freshmen (as I would see done in subsequent years, when the campus as a whole eliminated the later periods of the day.) My "little guys," as I took to calling them, were far too immature for any positive outcome of their interactions with the "big guys." I saw this in various field trips we took, or other school events wherein the groups would be mixed together; the freshman girls would instantly begin all manner of posing and posturing for my repeater-boys, who were inappropriate dating targets emotionally and legally. And the big guys would begin posturing too--acting "tough," or boasting about their various misadventures earlier in their high school careers--in a way that made the "repeater lifestyle" seem all too appealing to the younger kids. You could just see the little guys being wowed by the charisma of these hardened high-school veterans. And while I loved the personalities of my repeater kids, they were definitely NOT the role models I wanted my 9th graders to be emulating.

In Washington, DC, a similar set-up to the one I experienced in my early years in the Bronx is now being enacted at some schools. Age-appropriate (for lack of a better word) freshmen are being sent to special freshman academies, while the "repeaters" are being sent to "twilight school" or other types of classes more oriented towards credit recovery. Such a division is controversial: One can easily argue that the young freshmen will have access to better education opportunities and resources, while the older kids--many of whom undoubtedly struggle with learning differences, English-language barriers, or emotional difficulties--are being pushed aside, made to feel like outcasts.

Nevertheless, experience has shown me that such a division is necessary to the success of the 9th graders, both in order to relieve the pressure on already over-crowded classrooms, and to keep the younger kids in an environment with fewer negative influences. We need programs in place for the repeaters, so that they can have a shot at getting their high school degrees--ideally, in combination with some sort of trade or career-tech training, which would be incredibly useful especially for the over-age, under-credited crew who are often forced to support family members while completing their academic requirements. In this case, a separate approach to education--in which, hopefully, both groups can have their needs met--would be best for everyone involved.

I'm off to Asia until the end of the month. Have a great summer, everyone!

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The opinions expressed in View From the Bronx: An Urban Teacher's Perspective are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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