Back to School with the 3 R’s – Reading, Writing and Retention


Diego has been back in school for a couple of months now, and I am happy to say that even though the beginning of the school year presented a lot of challenges, we survived it.  You see, Diego is in the first grade. Again.  It was a big decision, and one we did not take lightly, but after several meetings last year with Diego’s teacher, the school principal and a reading specialist, Juan and I decided it would be in Diego’s best interest to repeat first grade. I felt it was the best decision.  Until the first day of school when I saw Diego curled in the corner crying. My heart ached and I began to second guess our decision. It was not the first time either, that I would second guess myself.

The first time was shortly after Diego started  kindergarten, when he was in pre-school and his pre-k teacher suggested he could use another year before he went to kindergarten. The kindergarten teacher at the school he was scheduled to attend also suggested it.  Juan and I considered giving Diego another year of pre-k since his August birthday would make him one of the younger students in the incoming  kindergarten class.  Delaying kindergarten, especially for boys, is a growing trend. There’s even a name for it, “Red shirting.” It comes from the term used in college sports when recruited athletes sit out the first year of college play.  In fact our own school district recognizes the benefit of starting kindergarten later and has begun to move back the cut-off birth date so that by next year an entering kindergartner must be 5 by August 1. However, in 2009, when Diego was set to start kindergarten, the birthday cut-off was still mid-December. That year Juan and I  learned that Diego was accepted into our local school district’s inaugural year of a Spanish immersion program, and we decided it was too great an opportunity to pass up, so we enrolled him in kindergarten, even though a part of me felt he could benefit from another year of pre-k.  In kindergarten Diego struggled for several weeks. He cried  regularly when I dropped him off. The teachers assured me that he was fine after I left and he definately seemed to be grasping the curriculum, even if 90% of it was in Spanish.  I felt better about our decision to to start him in school–and then he got to first grade.

Suddenly, it seemed like the curriculum took a steep curve. The class sizes increased to 29 students, due to budget cuts. When I volunteered in the classroom, it seemed chaotic, a couple of students seemed to continually interrupt and demand attention from the teacher, as she tried to work with small reading groups. Diego seemed to be a bit behind in reading, but we figured it had more to do with the fact that this year 80% of the curriculum was in Spanish, and the understandable confusion between learning to read in Spanish and English.  Four months into the school year, the teacher determined that Diego needed reading extra support and he began to see a reading intervention specialist. The added support seemed to make a difference, and Diego loved it. He received 20 minutes per day of individualized instruction. Unfortunately, by the end of the school year, his reading was still significantly behind the standard,  and we were faced with the decision to let him advance to the second grade or repeat first.

Juan and I were taken aback. How could this happen? Diego is a bright, sociable, confident boy.  Juan and I both love to read, and we have been supportive of his education.  I hate to say it, but I felt a bit like retention was a poor reflection upon me, and my ability to raise a child who loves to read.  My ego was tied up with my son’s academic achievement. Mother fail. When I came to terms with the idea, I realized  retention wasn’t about me, but about him. I knew that retaining Diego was the best thing for him.

I broke the news to Diego, and he was, understandably, very upset. He cried because he thought he would not see his friends and that he would not be able to play with them.  He sobbed and told me he was a “failure.” Ugh.  Exactly what I did not want to hear. I had tried to put as postive a  spin on retntion, without ever suggesting that he failed. Diego came up with the idea on his own. My own fears were realized, since I had read that one of the major criticisms of reteniton was the negative impact it had on a child’s self-esteem.

The first day of school Diego was anxious.  He saw his old friends but didn’ t engage them much. He seemed self-consciouse that he had to  line up separately from them.  When he got into the classroom, he didn’t recognize anyone.  He took a seat on the carpet away from everyone and began to cry.  It was awful. I tried to comfort him but I there was little I could do to make him feel better, and eventually I had to leave. I hovered outside the door for about 10 minutes and watched through the window as his tears stopped. I knew that he would adjust. It’s taken awhile but he seems to be doing okay. He used to regularly ask if he could move onto second grade, but he is doing that less and less. He still plays with his old friends and has made new ones. He is confident in class and is one of the kids who regularly speaks Spanish to his classmates, and his reading has improved.  The class size is smaller, 21 students.

Next week, Juan and I meet with his teacher for a conference. I am anxious to talk to her and spend some time discussing his progress. Even though I may have second guessed my decision to send Diego to kindergarten early, and our decision to retain him for first grade, the more and more I see him really blossoming, the more I feel like it was the right decision. Diego is not the youngest in his class, but he’s not the oldest either. I think that he is right where he needs to be.

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