Leaders in high-retention districts make no apologies for kindergarten repeats

New Lothrop, a small school district in Shiawassee County, holds back more of its kindergartners for a second year than any district in the state -- and its superintendent makes no apologies for it.

“The bottom line is, we’re not going to promote kids if they’re not ready,” said New Lothrop Superintendent John Strycker. “We use common sense. If a student isn’t ready to succeed, they fall behind. Once they fall behind, it’s a spiral.

“We don’t socially promote,” Strycker added. “The younger they are, the more strict we are about not socially promoting.”

A Bridge Magazine analysis released Tuesday revealed startling disparities in kindergarten retention rates across Michigan, ranging from below 2 percent to New Lothrop’s 45.2 percent (in the 2010-11 school year).

Sixty school districts hold back at least one in every four kindergartners.


Studies have shown no benefit in academic achievement from holding kids for a second year of kindergarten, while taxpayers fork out about $7,000 for the extra year of schooling.

But Stryker disagrees, pointing out that New Lothrop has the top MEAP scores in the county. “They may get a bump or bruise because they’re held back in kindergarten, but they’re not behind when they get older and don’t need those resources,” Stryker said.

At Cass City Public Schools, parents are the driving force behind the district’s 39 percent kindergarten retention rate. The small district in Michigan’s Thumb offers regular kindergarten and a “young 5” program, in which students are expected to progress to regular kindergarten the following year.

“A lot of families elect to go to the young 5 program,” said Cass City Superintendent Jeff Hartel. “I’m thinking our early 5 program will grow. People love it.”

Those early 5 programs, which generally are not as academically rigorous as regular kindergarten, are funded by the state at the same level as kindergarten. Some refer to it as “planned retention,” others as “redshirting.” Whatever the name, it cost the state $93 million in 2010-11.

Dropping early 5 programs isn’t a sure bet to limit kindergarten retention. Charlevoix Public Schools retained almost 38 percent of its 5-year-olds in 2010-11, mostly through an early 5 program. The district dropped the program this year, but has had many parents of regular kindergarten students ask the school to hold back their kids.

“We’re having parent-teacher conferences today and that exact conversation is going on,” Charlevoix Elementary Principal Doug Drenth said last week. “The parents bring it up. They’ve had multiple children go through the program and they want their other children to have it.”


Senior Writer Ron French joined Bridge in 2011 after having won more than 40 national and state journalism awards since he joined the Detroit News in 1995. French has a long track record of uncovering emerging issues and changing the public policy debate through his work. In 2006, he foretold the coming crisis in the auto industry in a special report detailing how worker health-care costs threatened to bankrupt General Motors.

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Earl Newman
Thu, 03/28/2013 - 9:04am
The value of retention as a way of improving student achievement has never been demonstrated. You are correct to point this out. There are two problems with the research you cite, however. One problem is that retention as a strategy in middle and upper elementary grades is not comparable to retention at the kindergarten level. Retention in grade of older students is far more often compounded by resentment and other complicating factors. Kindergarten retention has nothing like the punitive component present in the upper grades. The second problem is that the kinds of statistics we collect regarding school achievement treats the population as a group, not as individuals. The average achievement scores usually cited tell us something about how youth in the aggregate respond to retention, but the real effect of retention can only be measured child by child. This kind of research is rarely done because it is expensive and difficult.
Wed, 03/19/2014 - 4:12pm
I believe, and research shows, that it really depends on many things: age, experiences , and home environment as to how well a child succeeds in Kdg. Our district has a Michigan Readiness, Head start, and Young 5 program, to prepare our students for the Kdg. experience. These programs are by far a real asset to our team approach to learning. Now that our state legislators have finally realized that age does make a difference and moved the starting dates back to September hopefully our youngsters will be even better prepared for the school experience of their lives. There are always some unusual situations that come about but for the most part our kids are getting more and more help when it matters. If we put our money at the beginning it should cut costs at the end as far as education goes.