In a dramatic effort to tighten standards and boost student performance, the Buffalo Public Schools are ending the decades-old practice of social promotion, or moving pupils from one grade level to the next even if they are not prepared to do the work.
The Board of Education voted, 8-1, late Wednesday night to eliminate social promotion over the next three years, and to implement an ambitious academic reform program to help thousands of struggling students bring their work up to grade level.
Social promotion "has been a curse on this school district for a long time," said Park District Board Member Jack Coyle, who sponsored the resolution. He called its elimination one of the most important actions taken during his 11 years on the board.
The new standards will be in effect immediately for the first batch of students -- all seventh- and eighth-graders and most pupils in prekindergarten through third grade. That means they will be held back in September if they are not working at grade level.
Social promotion is now so pervasive in the Buffalo schools that if it were totally eliminated in September without offering students extra help, the majority of elementary school pupils would be prevented from moving to the next grade.
"We've got to stop the cancer right now," said School Superintendent James A. Williams. "If you don't, it's going to spread and expand. That's the painful part."
Despite sporadic attempts to limit social promotion, it has been common for at least 30 years, school officials said.
"The message that goes out to teachers and staff is that we don't want you to hold students back," said Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore, who supports the board action.
"We never really stopped and said: 'Let's address it,' " Coyle said. "It became a vicious cycle. Now we're saying we're going to set a benchmark, and children are going to have to meet it. Children are not going to be moved forward without being prepared."
Here is how the phase-in will work:
*Social promotion ends immediately for students in grades 7 and 8, and also for pupils in prekindergarten through third grade at 24 targeted schools. That means they will not be promoted in September if they are not working at grade level.
*In September 2007, social promotion will end for pupils in fourth through sixth grades at the 24 targeted schools, and for pupils in prekindergarten through third grade at the city's other 14 elementary schools.
*Beginning in September 2008, social promotion will end for all pupils in prekindergarten through eighth grade.
High school students will continue to move to the next grade based on course requirements, and those standards will be made more demanding.
All struggling students will be offered extra help -- including after-school tutoring, summer school or other types of assistance -- before their social promotion option is cut off.
"It's not like we're going to penalize them," said Catherine F. Collins, an at-large member of the Board of Education. "We have to stop moving children along who cannot read. It's going to be a blow to parents, but we have to do something."
The success of the new policy will depend on the details and implementation, Rumore said.
"If we're ever going to to have students perform at grade level, as they should be, we have to take a stand," he said. "But it's not going to be cheap."
The elimination of social promotion is closely tied to a separate $21.3 million "wish list" of programs the district hopes to implement next year. That includes:
*$5 million for an alternative high school.
*$3 million for after-school instruction for about 3,000 seventh- and eighth-graders.
*$1.2 million to provide summer school classes for elementary school pupils.
*$3.1 million to hire 58 reading coaches.
*$5.2 million to provide full-time nurses at every city school.
Williams said the district, which is facing a potential $40 million budget gap next year, will try to cover both the gap and the new programs through additional state and federal aid, public and private grants, and reallocation of money it already receives.
The new policy also will prompt students and parents to take schoolwork more seriously, Williams said.
"Now there are consequences if you don't perform," Williams said. "Before, there were no consequences."
The board action is consistent with Commencement Academies that Williams instituted this school year for more than 1,000 eighth-graders, and is designed to bring the district's academic expectations in line with state and federal standards, said Donald A. Van Every, the North District board member.
"The fact that Williams is pushing it, with or without the board resolution, is a sea change," Van Every said. "I think it's a recognition that we've been failing children."