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13 Investigates: RPS 205 Teachers say failing students still get moved on to next grade

ROCKFORD (WREX) – Thousands of students go in an out of doors at RPS 205 every day. From kindergarten to high school, the goal is the same, to learn. The problem is that’s not what some RPS 205 teachers say is happening with all their students.

“Many kids pass on, failing two classes maybe even three classes, ” said John Bramel, a science teacher at Lincoln Middle School.

Bramel said anywhere from 10%-40% of his students are not academically ready for his class.

“A good percentage of them don’t have the skills, reading or math, to do the science that we require them to do in the classroom,” he said.

When asked if it’s one of the biggest problems he faces as a teacher, he said, “Definitely.” And he’s not alone. In fact, at least 175 other teachers in the district agree with him. They told 13 Investigates that in an anonymous survey.

13 Investigates sent out the 10-question survey to every teacher at RPS 205 and 240 of them responded. We asked if they thought students moving on to the next grade level when they’re not ready is a problem. Nearly 75% of them said it is.

One middle school teacher wrote, “Students come to me way below grade level and it is unrealistic to think that I can bring many of them up to grade level before they leave me.”

An elementary teacher wrote, “Most of the students that I wanted to retain could not write their name by the end of the year.”

And another teacher wrote, “Some students are so academically low sending them to the next grade unprepared feels wrong.”

Twenty-three percent of the teachers we surveyed said they have had more than 20 students they’ve wanted to retain, but those students moved on to the next grade anyway. Some of those teachers have worked with the district for less than five years. But if teachers think a student should be retained, why are they getting promoted?

“I’ve recommended that some specific students should probably be retained because they definitely don’t have the skills to go on to high school,” said Bramel. “I recommended that to counselors in the past and administration and they listen to you but I don’t know if anything ever happened. I mean the students did get passed on.”

A majority of teachers told us retention is frowned upon and just not done. Several said it’s because the district pushes “social promotion”.

“There is no district-wide pressure to pass a student in a particular class. That is not something we do as a district,” said Superintendent Ehren Jarrett.

We asked the superintendent then why are children able to get to fifth, sixth or seventh grade if they can’t read or write? Jarrett said, “Because the question comes down to why can’t they or write because they, is it that they have a learning disability, is it because they have a poor relationship with a series of teachers is it because they’re going through major childhood trauma in their life. Is it because they’re abused?”

“What happens if the student is not meeting the criteria of that grade?” 13 Investigates asked.

“Retention would be one of the solutions on the very most extreme end of the continuum,” said Jarrett.

Jarret said research is mixed on grade level retention and it’s not always the best solution. But are any students being retained in the district? 13 Investigates sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the district asking for the number of student it retains every year. Our request as denied because the district said it doesn’t keep track.

While some teachers say eventually struggling students drop out or end up in trouble with the law, others say the students still earn a diploma. For employers in the area, that’s become a major issue.

“I feel bad for the candidates frankly who feel they’ve completed school, feel they’ve prepared and in reality it’s been inadequate for them,” said LoRayne Logan, founder and president of The Workplace in Rockford.

Logan’s company helps employers fill job openings with qualified candidates, there’s just one problem.

“Students are just not graduating with the kind of preparedness they need for today’s marketplace,” she said.

“When we have students who are being graduated who are not ready, academically, what does that do to the city of Rockford and beyond regionally?” 13 Investigates asked.

“It gives us a higher rate of unemployment, it gives us a lower average family income,” she replied, “And it probably contributes to crime.”

Logan said unprepared high school graduates is not just a Rockford problem. She sees it across our region and she had multiple examples of job applicants with high school diplomas who don’t use proper grammar, can’t spell and can’t add. One example came from a girl who said she graduated from RPS 205. It was a cover letter riddled with spelling errors and poor grammar.

“Should this person have a degree?” we asked.

“No,” Logan replied.

We showed Jarrett the same example and asked him the same question.

“I would be really, really concerned about commenting on one student out of context by looking at one cover letter and frankly it would be really difficult for me to comment on that,” he said.

The Workplace also tests potential employees to see how qualified they are for a job. Logan said about 30% with high school diplomas can’t pass a basic skills test with addition and subtraction.

“As a school district, we are a representation of our community and if we have students that are not all 100% ready for college and career then we need to work together as a community at all levels from birth to career to try and find out where those gaps are to solve them. And as a school district and as a leader in the school district I want to make sure that we do everything we can do be part of those partnerships,” said Jarrett.

Bramel said there is something more the district could do and that’s listen to teachers.

“They would love their voice to be heard when it comes to student needs and problems that are happening int he classrooms and in the hallways in the schools,” he said.

There are more than 1,800 teachers in the school district. Many reached out to 13 Investigates saying they didn’t take the survey because they were afraid of backlash from the district.

13 Investigates is working on similar stories in every major school district in our area.

If you have a story you’d like us to investigate, call our 13 Investigates tip line at 815-335-7890.

Kristin Crowley

Evening News Anchor
Kristin Crowley anchors the 5, 6 and 10 p.m. news. She is also a reporter for 13 Investigates. She brings more than a decade of experience to the newsroom. Her work at WREX has earned her multiple awards including a regional Edward R. Murrow for Investigative Journalism and three regional Emmys.

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