BY NIRVI SHAH | Miami Herald
Tue, Jul. 08, 2008 - Failing English, math, science or social studies classes in middle school never kept Florida students from moving on to high school in the past.
That's not the case anymore.
Beginning this fall, a Florida law enacted two years ago will require all students to pass their core subjects in middle school in order to be promoted to the ninth grade.
JOE RIMKUS JR./MIAMI HERALD STAFF
Seventh-grade mathematics teacher Audrey Dudek goes through some math problems with one of the students at Pines Middle School.
The tougher standards have already forced tens of thousands of middle school students around the state, including those in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, to enroll in remedial programs during the school year and during summer school.
The law, approved in 2006, was part of the work of a statewide middle school reform task force that wanted to make sixth, seventh and eighth grades more meaningful and ensure that more middle school students were truly prepared for high school. It applied to sixth-graders in 2006. Last year, seventh-graders were added to the list.
Under the old rules, ''they could fail in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade and they could go on to the next grade,'' said Carle Shaw, principal of Attucks Middle School in Hollywood.
Now, if a student at Shaw's school earns an F in any grading period, they forgo some of their time in elective classes for the next marking period reviewing the material in the failed class to make sure they understand it and move their grade to a D -- the minimum to go to high school. Or they go to summer classes.
At Pines Middle School this summer, soon-to-be seventh-grader Leyla Borges started the summer with a 35 percent on a science exam -- an F. She finished with a 90 percent -- an A.
Leyla, 12, said she skipped school enough this year to fail science and didn't heed her mother's advice to stay focused. She found that focus in Peter Colman's summer science class and said she's actually interested in the subject now. ''I wouldn't mind learning more about it,'' she said.
Shaw and other principals prefer getting kids help during the school year. Students shouldn't get used to thinking they can fail a class during the school year and make it up in three weeks over the summer, said Joel Smith, who oversees middle schools in Broward.
Nearly one in 10 of the district's 26,000 sixth- and seventh-graders were eligible for the summer classes. About 2,100 enrolled.
''What you didn't get in the year you're not really going to get in three weeks,'' he said. ``You want to make lifelong learners rather than just have them recover a course in three weeks.''
Not all of the summer students who finished classes Thursday will end up with the credit made up. If they haven't mastered the skills, they'll have to keep working for the credit, Smith said.
Students who fail one or two classes in middle school -- including English, math, social studies and science -- can still be promoted from one grade to the next as long as they fail no more than two classes. But they could get locked out of ninth grade without remedial work.
State and local education administrators hope that when this group of students advances to high school, dropout and graduation figures will improve. Florida's graduation rate is 72 percent, and it was just 66 percent in Broward and 64 percent in Miami-Dade County last year.
Many of the students who bring the graduation rate down drop out in ninth grade.
''Ninth grade's the toughest year for the students in Florida,'' said Mary Jane Tappen, the state's deputy chancellor for curriculum, instruction and student services. ``The whole purpose is to try to help with that.''
High schools already have enacted many reforms to keep ninth-grade students engaged and in school, said Chip Osborn, principal of Hollywood Hills High. Many schools separate freshmen from upperclassmen, give them unique schedules and pair them with mentors.
And while middle school students could move on to high school even without passing some of their classes, high school students can't earn diplomas without a fixed number of credits, Osborn said.
''You need four credits in English, four credits in math, three credits in social studies,'' Osborn said. The courses required of middle school students must also have a point, he said.
Broward Superintendent Jim Notter looks forward to seeing the effect of middle school reforms on high schools.
Although Broward scaled back on most summer school programs years ago, the district came up with about $400,000 to pay for middle school classes to give as many students as possible the chance to get to high school on time.
''I believe it's one of those reforms that was much needed,'' he said.