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held back in school
Domonique Crosby raises her hand in calculus class at George Washington Carver High School. Credit: Cheryl Gerber for The Hechinger Report

NEW ORLEANS — If Domonique Crosby has her way, she will graduate from high school this spring at age 20. To her, earning her diploma, even two years late, feels like something of a miracle.

Held back in the fourth grade, Crosby was 16 years old when she entered George Washington Carver High School in New Orleans. As a freshman, she constantly got into fights, and spent long hours in a disciplinary classroom. As a sophomore, she worked six hours a night at a burger joint in a shopping mall. She became chronically absent and lethargic when she was in class

“I got home at 9 o’clock and I’d do homework. It was hard to get up in the morning and go to school,” she said. “I wanted to give up. I thought I should get a job. I felt like I was already behind and I was too old to still be in high school.”

Administrators at Carver say that students who enter high school overage feel like they’re wearing a scarlet letter, regardless of why they were retained. “There’s so much shame attached to it. Students constantly tell me, ‘I want to be at my right grade,’” said Jerel Bryant, Carver’s principal. “It’s a huge thing.”

Those doubts and shame are one of the many reasons that overage students are at significant risk of dropping out of school. But in New Orleans, overage students are incredibly common. Nearly 1 in 5 of Crosby’s classmates at Carver are also at least two years overage for their grade. All across the city, the number of students who are significantly older than their classmates is at crisis levels.

The proportion of overage students — those who have been retained for at least one grade — hovers around 40 percent for New Orleans high school students, according to an analysis of 2014 data by researchers at Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, which is based at Tulane University. Forty-six percent of twelfth-graders were at least one year older than their peers.

held back in school

Interviews with students and experts and data gathered for this story suggest that the instability after Hurricane Katrina contributed to the problem, but the crisis is also partly man-made. For years, Louisiana has been a national leader in the movement to end “social promotion,” or the practice of moving children up through the grades, regardless of their academic achievement. The state enforced strict policies to retain children who failed high stakes tests, ballooning the ranks of those who were held back.

Related: A new movement to treat troubled children as ‘sad, not bad’

Now, after realizing that academic stragglers who were retained frequently didn’t receive the support they needed, the state is changing course. One study by the Louisiana board of education showed that 40 percent of retained eighth graders did not even make it to a high-school campus after being held back.

held back in school
Domonique Crosby and her best friend Terr’Nique Delair walk together after class at George Washington Carver High School. Credit: Cheryl Gerber for The Hechinger Report

“We think there is a better route,” said John White, Louisiana’s superintendent of education, who emphasized that state standards were still firmly in place. “We are not getting away from state requirements. We’re getting away from requiring retention,” he said.

Louisiana had long erred on the side of social promotion, often passing underachievers through school despite low reading and math levels. In the mid-2000s, Louisiana implemented high-stakes tests known as Louisiana Educational Assessment Program, or LEAP, which required fourth and eighth graders to show that they were grade-level proficient.

Students who fell short were assigned mandatory summer-school classes, after which they took the test again. If that second attempt wasn’t successful, students couldn’t move on to fifth or ninth grade. The practice of retention in Louisiana also extended beyond the high-stakes grades. In 2015-16, more than one-third of all retained students were from grades K-3. In that same year, 10 percent of all ninth graders were held back. In a presentation a few years ago, a top education-department administrator, Chief of Literacy Kerry Laster, wrote, “We retain students despite overwhelming research and practical evidence that retention fails to lead to improved student outcomes.” Laster’s presentation, based on 2010 data, reported that 28 percent of Louisiana students did not make it to fourth grade on time.

For the overage high schoolers interviewed for this story, formal retention — in which a failing student is required to repeat a grade because of underachievement in class or on the LEAP — was almost always a part of the picture. That seems to match overall results from the National Survey of Children’s Health, which includes a question for each household asking how many students ages 6 through 17 have ever been retained. A 2011-12 survey found an average of 9 percent of students nationwide had repeated at least one grade; in Louisiana, the average was 23 percent.

Retentions in Louisiana peaked a few years after Katrina and have fallen steadily since; nearly 9 percent of the state’s students were held back in 2007, only 5 percent were retained in 2011. By the 2015-16 school year, the latest data available online, Louisiana retained 4 percent of its students, still roughly twice the 2.2 percent national average.

Related: The lost children of Katrina

Overage students give varying reasons for their retention. Some lost interest in school and became chronically absent; others were pushed out or held back for behavioral reasons. Nearly all are lagging academically: The average reading level of students entering Carver High School is fifth or sixth grade.

For Crosby, as with most overage kids, a combination of factors contributed to her being held back. When she was only 7 years old, she lost her dad to gun violence. Hurricane Katrina came later that same year, and her family was forced to find a new home. They traveled first to Atlanta, but eventually ended up in Houston. Crosby guesses that she missed at least two more months of classes before enrolling in a local school in Houston, where she remembers feeling different and confused. “I really didn’t know what they were talking about,” she said. “It felt like I was drained, like I was dragged away from the place where I normally would be. It felt like a place I wasn’t welcome.”

She returned to New Orleans for fourth grade, just in time to take the LEAP test. She failed, and was formally retained.

Without a doubt, Katrina was a key factor for nearly all of this year’s overage seniors, who were not solely “held back” in the traditional sense. Most students lost months or even years of school time after Katrina hit in 2005. The disaster also spurred prolonged displacement, culture shock, and grief for many, students said that they were left reeling and felt as though they were in a fog. For children who came from New Orleans neighborhoods with high levels of poverty and violence, the storm and its aftermath added yet another layer of trauma.

Even as early as 2006 and 2007, it was apparent to sociologists Lori Peek and Alice Fothergill, authors of the book “Children of Katrina,” that students were falling way behind as a result of the storm and its aftermath. “When New Orleans schools really started opening, we would see kids who were a foot taller than their classmates,” Peek recalled recently. “Teachers told us, ‘Oh, of course, that’s a Katrina effect. These are children who missed one, two, even three years of class time.’”

Peek said she has often wondered about the children who were out of school and away from New Orleans for so long after Katrina. “For children who struggled mightily after Katrina, displacement — often multiple displacements — was always at the root,” she said, recalling the children she worked with, whose minds seemed clouded, leaving them with no memory of where they had been living even three months before.

Related: Charter schools aren’t measuring up to their promises

But the proportion of overage students in Louisiana schools outside New Orleans is still startlingly high, averaging around one-third of students in 2014. That suggests that the state’s frequent use of retention may have played a bigger role in producing the high number of overage students than Hurricane Katrina. And though school performance has improved significantly since Louisiana implemented LEAP more than a decade ago, the state still has “a lot of struggling students,” said Superintendent White.

He said he’s determined to offer more support to those children.

Three years ago, the state piloted a program called “transitional ninth grade” that moved students who had failed eighth grade to high-school campuses where they could take a mix of courses, some at-grade-level and some remedial. The pilot came in the wake of the internal education-department analysis showing the high percentage of retained eighth graders who never went to high school, said Ken Bradford, an assistant superintendent in the department who specializes in high-school academics.

Two years ago, the state also temporarily waived mandatory-retention requirements for fourth grade as it prepared to institute a more challenging curriculum. Then in 2015, the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, allowed states to measure success with more just than test scores. Early this past December, the state released guidance to explain how to institute alternatives to retention in fourth grade, to comply with a resolution passed by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in October.

Students who failed LEAP suddenly have more options than pass or fail.

Related: City that loved and lost high school football finally gets it back

Under the new scenario, retention in fourth grade “should be a rare choice,” said White, noting that now, for each failing student, schools will institute interventions that must be documented in the state’s student-information system until the student achieves basic proficiency on the LEAP test.

Certainly, Louisiana schools still have limited resources and tools to help struggling students, White said. “But they have much better tools than they did in 2005 when the retention policy was put into place,” he said. “And that means that the retention policy should change with the times.”

Domonique Crosby is a now a senior, a straight-A student who seems to know exactly what she wants from her future. She’ll attend college, maybe at UCLA or maybe somewhere closer to home. Then she’ll go on to med school to become an obstetrician-gynecologist who will work in under-served communities.

Bryant, Carver’s principal, nodded when he heard her plans. Crosby can do “anything she puts her mind to,” he said.

The numbers of overage students are higher in schools like Carver that serve students from the city’s most challenged communities. And though Carver is one of the stars among those schools — several education advocates pointed to it when asked which high schools were doing exceptionally well with overage students — graduation rates have generally risen in high schools across New Orleans.

Related: An urban charter school achieves a fivefold increase in the percentage of its black and Latino graduates who major in STEM

held back in school
Terr’Nique Delair sits in English class at George Washington Carver High School. Credit: Cheryl Gerber for The Hechinger Report

At Carver last year, 19 percent of the graduating class was overage — two or more years behind. Bryant expects a similar proportion this year. The statistic is uncommon: Most high schools report only a small percentage of overage students in the graduating class, because the majority drop out before graduation. “I honestly have never heard of anything like that,” said Peek, the sociologist, who was also impressed with a section of the Education Research Alliance analysis showing that overage students in New Orleans are less likely to drop out than overage students elsewhere in Louisiana.

White sees that as the result of the work that the schools are doing. “What’s happening in New Orleans is you have schools that won’t give up on their kids,” he said. “When kids get into high schools, their schools are hanging onto them.”

For teachers and administrators at Carver, the first task is to minimize the perception that age matters. “You don’t have 19 or 20 bouncing around on the top of your head,” Bryant tells students. “No one is seeing that. They don’t know your age.”

On the senior hallway, Crosby is best known as a whip-smart student who is inseparable from her closest friend, Terr’Nique Delair. “She’s my other half. She brings joy to my life,” Crosby said.

Only Crosby and Delair know that there’s an age gap between them, Crosby said. “She’s not overage — she’s graduating on time. But she’s my best friend.”

At Carver, one of Crosby’s biggest adult cheerleaders has been Brian Gilmore, the big-voiced discipline dean who often stands at the end of the senior hallway with a walkie-talkie between classes. “He always reminds me, ‘You’ve come a long way,” she said. “Why give up now?’”

That’s by design, said Bryant, who pairs each student with an advisor, who is instructed to get to know that child “extremely well.” Bryant sees those relationships as especially vital for overage students, who “are constantly weighing other options.” (Though boys generally tend to lag in academics, national statistics suggest that the proportion of girls and boys who are overage is similar.)

Anytime a student is absent, someone on Carver’s staff personally calls the child’s parent or caregiver. One of the city’s largest school social-work staffs — three full-time social workers assisted by social-work interns from Tulane — help students with everything from toothaches to juvenile-court appearances. In December, the school hired a new staffer, charged with tracking down chronically absent students (those with more than 10 absences), in an effort to get them engaged and back on the rolls before they formally drop out.

Related: Is school choice helping or hurting Catholic schools in New Orleans?

held back in school
Rory Williams stands in the library at George Washington Carver High School. Credit: Cheryl Gerber for The Hechinger Report

Carver is also one of a small handful of schools that works with the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies to create a trauma-sensitive environment in which students and teachers learn to cultivate supportive relationships. So whenever Crosby was disciplined for fighting, she was sent to a classroom run by a teacher named Liza Figueroa, who became a cheerleader of sorts. “Ms. Figueroa would tell me, ‘You shouldn’t be here, you should be in your class, doing your work,’” Crosby said. “After she repeated it enough times, I believed it.”

Though Carver’s official school rating is still a D, its trajectory looks positive. There’s a certain joy emanating from the school’s hallways, which are ornamented with green and orange, the school’s colors. In early December, a student brass band roamed the hallways to spread holiday cheer. As Crosby stood in the senior hallway talking, other students passing by stopped to give her a quick hug.

Here, amid the green and orange, she can be herself, Crosby said. “If I was at another school, I think that my age would come up. I think people would make jokes about it,” Crosby said.

Instead, she’s surrounded by friends, including elementary-school classmate Rory Williams, who also will be 20 when he graduates. Williams was tempted to quit school and go to work to support his ailing mother, he said. But first he consulted with Carver teachers and a favorite uncle, who reminded him that many of his friends work at fast-food places, where few jobs pay enough to support a household. “So I am going to get my diploma and be the first in my family to go to college,” he said.

Crosby nodded. She, too, has family in mind when she thinks about college. Her mother, who does home healthcare, had to drop out of nursing school when she got pregnant with Crosby’s older sister. Her mother’s hopes of returning to school were dashed a few years later, when she became pregnant again, with Crosby.

“Her dream stopped when she had us,” Crosby said. “That made me interested in becoming an ob-gyn and keeping that dream alive.”

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