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Choosing Preparation over Pride for Reading Success

• Kate Wallace

Dale R. Fair Babson Park Elementary is a high-performing conversion charter school in Babson Park, Fla. The school has earned an “A” grade from the state’s school grading system for six of the past seven years. Babson is known for more than its high achieving status; however, it’s also known for its high rates of kindergarten retention.

In 2003, Florida implemented a strong statewide K-3 literacy policy which includes retention as a last resort for struggling third-grade readers. At Babson Park, educators had been using a similar approach for years, including literacy screenings for all kindergarten students, retaining those who are not ready to advance to first grade, and using intensive interventions for struggling students to ensure all children can read by third grade.

While the new state policy had a radical impact on many Florida schools, it was business as usual for Babson Park.

“We didn’t think it was a big deal,” recalled Babson Park Principal Elizabeth Tyler. “If you’re acting in the best interest of kids, policies like that don’t have to be a burden.”

Principal Tyler with students_from principalPrincipal Elizabeth Tyler with students.
Image provided by Dale R. Fair Babson Park Elementary.

More than 30 years ago, former principal Dale Fair, the school’s namesake, implemented an innovative, research-based approach to reading instruction developed by reading consultant Dr. Richard Culyer. Part of Culyer’s strategies involved moving students on only when they were ready and retaining struggling students to ensure they had the best possible chance at future success.

Today, Babson Park maintains a steadfast commitment to Culyer’s strategies, which emphasize differentiated reading instruction at the students’ instructional level, critical thinking exercises for students, and routine observations and school-wide programming for all teachers. Babson is intent on developing strong readers even when that means giving students more time. Around 30 percent of Babson Park’s kindergarten students are retained after early literacy screenings show they are not ready.

Shelli Jacobs, a resource teacher and former Dale R. Fair Babson Park elementary student, explained her school’s aggressive approach. “While I understand the state’s interest in third grade retention, it can be too late to retain most students. That’s why we retain early,” she said. “The gap between struggling students and their peers will get larger and larger if we don’t.”

Principal Tyler agreed. “If you retain students early, they come back confident and capable of what we’re asking them to do,” she stressed. “At that age, kids don’t care about being retained. It’s the parents who focus more on the stigma of retention, and that’s what we try to discourage.”

Typical classroom at Babson Park

Mrs. Portwood teaching vocabulary to her fourth-grade class at Dale R. Fair Babson Park Elementary.

Nancy McCarter, a Title I resource teacher at the school with 35 years of teaching experience, believes parents who fear retention will harm their child’s ability to succeed should consider how extra time will benefit their child long-term. “Success breeds self-esteem, esteem doesn’t breed success,” she said.

Even so, making the case for retention to a parent can be tough, according to McCarter. “We don’t like to retain anyone’s child,” she said. “Our lives would be easier if we didn’t have to do this, but we know it’s in the best interest of our students.”

Olivia Hoover, mother of a retained student, has seen the benefits of retention for her child first hand.

“At first we were skeptical to hold our child back [for] a second year of kindergarten, but [we] realized it was our own pride affecting the decision, not our child’s,” she remembered.

At first we were skeptical quoteHoover believes that had they sent her daughter onto first grade, she would have struggled endlessly and might not have developed into such a strong, confident learner.

“After watching her blossom into a fluent reader and confident young lady, our entire family agrees it was the best decision we ever could have made. She has become not just a positive role model for her classmates, but a child who has a true love of learning.”

Assistant Principal Rebecca Thomas saw too many students who would have benefited greatly from early retention during her time at a local high school. “They wanted to drop out because they simply couldn’t do the work,” Thomas said. “I really hurt for those students because I feel like the system failed them.”

Despite nearly half of students being eligible for free or reduced priced lunch, Babson Park’s students overwhelmingly arrive at third grade prepared to meet high learning expectations.

“We average one to two students a year who end up retained in third grade because of the state’s policy,” said Tyler, adding that these students have generally transferred to Dale R. Fair Babson Park after kindergarten.

Tyler thinks more schools ought to consider implementing Babson Park’s approach, saying that engaging and educating parents is key to tackling early literacy.

“We send home weekly communications reports, so parents understand where the child is,” she explained. “We also host parent nights at school, so they can see what’s required of their students.”

As for critics of Babson Park’s success, Tyler cautions against the naysayers.

“We have the same kinds of kids who come to school with limited vocabularies and challenges at home,” she said. “Anyone who is willing to work hard and find the right intervention for each child will find it worthwhile.”

Since Florida has enacted its K-3 Reading policy, the state has seen more schools taking Babson’s approach and intervening earlier to ensure students advance with the reading skills they will need at the next level.

Visit ExcelinEd’s Policy Library to learn how your state can prioritize literacy and equip each student to become a strong reader, or contact to learn how ExcelinEd can support your state.

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About the author

Kate Wallace @kstreetfla

Kate serves as the Director of Community Engagement (North Florida) for the Foundation for Florida's Future (AFloridaPromise). Prior to joining AFloridaPromise, Kate served as Legislative Coordinator for The Fiorentino Group, a Florida government affairs firm based in Jacksonville. Previously, Kate served as government affairs assistant for the Washington office of Triadvocates, an Arizona government relations firm, and as staff assistant for the Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., federal government relations office. As a college student, Kate interned for the White House in Vice President Dick Cheney’s Office of Domestic Policy and for former Florida Congressman Adam Putnam’s Capitol Hill office. A central Florida native, Kate graduated from University of Florida in 2007 with a B.S. in Public Relations. Contact Kate at