Back a Grade to Make the Grade?
Lovejoy policy review spurred by wave of repeat freshmen

By Karen Ayres

August 15, 2006 -- Most teenagers can't wait to get out of high school, but a group of Collin County teens has decided to repeat freshman year voluntarily.

Nearly a dozen would-be sophomores have pulled out of Allen High School and private schools this year to enroll as ninth-graders at Lovejoy High School in Lucas. Many other families have considered it.

The move allows the youths to attend a small school on a brand-new campus, but it requires them to repeat much of the coursework they took last year and potentially spend five years in high school. It will probably cost taxpayers more than $62,000.

Still, education experts say the extra time to learn the required material could boost the students' chances at getting into a choice college.

"There are some parents who do anything to position their kids to get into the most selective colleges, and this is just another manifestation of that," said Steven Goodman, an education consultant from Washington, D.C., who advises families on college admissions.

Lovejoy Superintendent Ted Moore said the district approved the unusual requests because parents felt the move would help their children academically and socially, but he said Lovejoy personnel discouraged it.

State law allows districts to decide whether parents can hold students back if they otherwise have enough credits to proceed to the next grade level. The Lovejoy school board will review its policy on grade retention at tonight's school board meeting. Any changes would not be approved until the board's next meeting.

"It really caught us by surprise," said Richard Hickman, Lovejoy school board president. "I don't know if I, personally, would want to repeat the ninth grade or any grade. I would have a hard time doing it, but people do things for different reasons."

Lovejoy High opened to freshmen this year under an agreement that calls for the school to add a grade level every year until 2009. In the meantime, older students are to remain at Allen High, a much bigger school that has housed Lovejoy students for more than two decades.

Many parents opposed the Lovejoy-Allen split when voters approved it a few years ago, and tensions still linger. The Lovejoy district draws students from Lucas and Fairview as well as sections of Allen and Wylie.

Mr. Moore said about two dozen families approached Lovejoy officials about having a student repeat the ninth grade. After talking with officials, 11 decided to pursue it.

One of the parents looking at retaining a child was a member of Mr. Moore's administrative team. Justine Sweeney, a public relations consultant tapped by the district, said that employee moved her son back to Allen High last week because it was best for him.

"It wasn't a political decision at all," Ms. Sweeney said.

One mother who is considering pulling her son out of Allen High said the size of the new school is foremost in her mind. Lovejoy has 182 freshmen. Allen has about 1,300 sophomores.

She said her son suggested staying back to go to Lovejoy.

"Large schools are able to offer certain things, but smaller schools give more individualized attention," said the mother, who requested anonymity for fear of jeopardizing her son's chances.

"If you take that all together, it is a very good academic opportunity here. ... We would not have pursued it if he hadn't brought it up."

Mr. Moore said parents offered various reasons, from their students' maturity to their academic records, for making the switch. He said he doesn't believe parents were worried about the Top 10 percent rule, which guarantees admission to state colleges for those in the top tier. No one specifically cited sports.

The students will be allowed to play sports for the next three years, but under state rules they can't play their senior year. None of them have enrolled in fall sports, district officials said.

The students will retake many of the core courses they took last year, but this year's grades won't count. Their grades from last year will be used to calculate grade-point averages and class rank.

Like other students, these youngsters will be eligible to graduate early, but Mr. Moore said it would be difficult for them to take all of the required courses in time. Lovejoy High is offering only a freshman curriculum this year. It's still unclear whether the youngsters will retake the ninth-grade TAKS exam.

Normally, students are classified in different grades based on the number of credits they earn, but state law permits districts to decide whether parents can hold their children back a year.

"There is nothing we can do to prevent a parent from holding a kid back," said Suzanne Marchman, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. "It absolutely boils down to the policy of that school in terms of promotion and retention."

Allen ISD spends about $6,200 per student every year, according to the district. That means taxpayers will lose roughly $62,000 by paying for these students to spend another year in high school.

"It would take extra tax dollars to educate any child who stays in school longer," said Mr. Moore, who said some students save taxpayers money by graduating early.

But not everyone is eager to pay extra cash for these students.

"Why is it that my tax dollars are going to pay for another year for those kids?" asked Brenda Rizos, a longtime critic of the Lovejoy district.

Though Lovejoy policy allows it, school officials in surrounding communities said they wouldn't let students repeat courses once they've passed them.

"We don't see any benefits for students to retake a class," said Cody Cunningham, a McKinney ISD spokesman. "If they've already taken it, we wouldn't allow it."

Allen ISD spokesman Tim Carroll said his district doesn't allow youngsters to repeat a class once they've received credit for it. He said Allen officials have been in contact with Lovejoy ISD about the situation, but he declined to comment further.

"It would not be appropriate for us to comment on it because they are Lovejoy students," Mr. Carroll said.

When colleges review student records, transcripts will show that they audited this year's courses.

Bill McCumber, who used to direct college counseling at St. Mark's School of Texas in Dallas, said many high school students aren't mature enough for college. If Lovejoy officials explain the situation, admissions officers would probably understand why parents want their children to attend a new, smaller high school for another year, he said.

"It wouldn't harm those kids one iota," said Mr. McCumber, now a college admissions consultant.

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