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Getting ahead by staying back

Remember that little sentence at the end of report cards? The last day of school, you'd get the envelope, cruise through the grades, and then grab hold of that final line: "Promoted to Grade __." With a whoop and a holler, you were done, secure that you'd met the demands of the past and understood the shape of the future.

But imagine if the number you found there was the same one you saw the year before.

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That's what more than half the kids at a new charter school in Washington may be facing, as you'll see in the cover story about a school we've followed throughout the year. Willing partners in a bold urban experiment, these students uprooted themselves from traditional public schools and took on a tougher academic assignment. Now they're being asked to stay the course by staying back.

It's the end of social promotion, up close and very personal. Students are tearful, called to task for the first time in their school careers on skills that aren't up to the grade. Parents are worried about self-esteem, but supportive. Principal Irasema Salcido says it's the hardest thing she's faced since opening the school last year.

After all, she and other teachers are also having to stay the course. They're talking to the kids and the parents. If this school has traveled some rough waters in its inaugural year, it is also drawing on strengths that gave rise to the charter-school movement - high standards for all and close ties with kids and families. Indeed, it will take all the teachers' dedication to convince kids they've been done a disservice in the past - and then to set the future straight.


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