When I spoke with one of my former students and his parents about the choice to repeat eighth grade, they were overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the experience. Sam Strohbehn is now a freshman at Hanover High School in Hanover, NH; last year was his fourth year in middle school. His parents pushed for the voluntary repeat due to his relatively young age, and at first, he refused. But he eventually agreed, realizing that repeating eighth grade would give him more than he would lose.
What made me change my mind was realizing that I could take a year and focus less on grades and more on learning new things. There was something appealing about learning just to learn rather than learning to get a grade.
Sam admits that his initial resistance was about social concerns: being one year behind his friends, and what they would think of his decision. But in the end, he said, “the pros definitely outweigh the cons.”
Sam’s mother, Judy, who had already seen two sons through high school, thought Sam needed more time before tackling new challenges in high school.
Sam is our youngest boy, and the youngest child in his grade. We knew what was coming academically and socially, and that to navigate high school, he needed some time to become a mature learner, to appreciate all that high school was going to offer. Sam had not yet developed strong organizational techniques, study skills, and time management tools. When his teachers weighed in, they stressed that he simply needed more time. We were told to consider a gap year after high school, but decided not to wait and give him that time now.
When Sam finally entered high school this year, he had, according to his mother,
…matured academically and socially. His study skills, writing, organizational skills, and diligence had all improved. Having this year to mature, helped give Sam confidence and more of a voice for himself. About halfway through his second eighth grade year, Sam told his mother, ‘Mom, I think every student should do an extra year between 8th grade and high school.’ I asked why? Sam said, ‘Well, I think everyone would do better in high school if they had another year to prepare.’ I knew at that moment that we had made the right decision...that Sam could see what this extra year, this gift of time, was going to do for him.
Sam clearly benefitted from the gift of time his parents were willing and able to give him, and as his teacher, I loved seeing his growth first-hand. But as a teacher who has spent much of her career in the middle-school trenches, I wonder whether the solution to slow development lies in granting an extra year to a precious few or in redeveloping curricula to focus more on executive-function skills. Voluntary grade repetition is an attractive and useful Band-Aid for the few who can afford it, but for the rest of the American student population, it only draws attention to the gaping holes in the education we provide to the many.