Policy on grade retention to be reviewed this summer, says N.B. education minister

New Brunswick's education minister says a policy designed to include children in the school system, can leave some feeling excluded – and his department is planning to review it over the summer.

Policy 322 on inclusive education includes a portion on grade retention: "a process of having a student repeat a full year of instruction based on an evaluation and an individual student's progress."

The policy states that this process must not be a standard practice in the province's system.

But, after a year and a half of various interruptions in learning because of the pandemic, Dominic Cardy suspects some students will need extra time.

"It's kind of heartbreaking when you have a classroom, classroom teachers and parents saying that there's nothing more than this child needs than just an extra few months, an extra year to master material," he said. "And then because of a provincial policy designed to include children, we end up by functionally excluding them because they're pushed into classes where they don't know the material. And kids then are kids, and can tell that that student doesn't know what they're doing yet and that causes real self-esteem issues and stops learning from progressing as quickly as it could.

"The policy I know was put in place with all good intentions, but at some point, we have to remember the point of public school for the vast majority of students who are there, is to master academic materials."

Saint John mother Sheena Carter says she has been trying to advocate for her son on this issue.

Turning 12 in the fall, she says he's learning about one year behind and the pandemic hasn't helped.

"He's stressed to me more than once that, 'Mom, I'm not ready,'" she said. "If a child is stating that, then it's huge."

Carter says she was denied a request to hold him back last year. Because of that - and he has an autoimmune disorder - she decided to homeschool him this year.

She wants him to return to school in September, but into the sixth grade, not the seventh.

"I've got him partially through Grade 6, but he's struggling. He's just not ready for Grade 7. I've had meetings with the school board, anybody I could talk to in the school district, but I've found that I have gotten nowhere. I just kept being told about this policy."

Cardy says he hasn't heard of many students in this situation – but suspects he will once the pandemic officially ends.

"The biggest challenge educationally is going to be that first term, that first year after the pandemic is done and then we have to deal with the consequences because I'm certainly quite convinced we're going to have a lot of students who are going to experience exactly those challenges," he said.

RESPONSE FROM THE SCHOOL DISTRICT

A spokesperson with the Anglophone South School District says the policy is best practice, according to research – specifically by the National Association of School Psychologists.

Their research has shown that students are 5-11 times more likely to drop out of school if they were retained – and that they're more likely to have "poor interactions with peers, disliking school, behavior problems, and lower self-esteem."

"…[R]esearch tells us that the most effective, best outcomes for students happen when they advance to the next grade with their peers and have supports in place to help them in the areas in which they were struggling and with any learning disabilities. This is the best practice supported by research and it is the practice promoted in Anglophone South School District," said Jessica Hanlon, director of communications for the district.

The district says a student's placement is the responsibility of the district's superintendent, according to the Education Act, but it can be appealed by a parent.

Cardy says the system needs to listen to the teachers themselves.

"I cannot be more clear on this that my message to the districts, and I'll say this internally as I say this publically – listen to classroom teachers and to principals, and if parents are behind that decision and a student's behind that decision too? Then why on Earth wouldn't we allow those decisions to be upheld?"

He says there will be a review of the grade retention policy over the summer – and also one on "governance in the school system, to talk about how we can make sure decisions are being made in the best interest of students" – with some decisions in the Fall.

Cardy also said about 70 per cent of the items in his education green paper have been acted on – in whole or in part – so far