After a lengthy discussion on the subject, Harlan High School Principal Stacy Noah said it would be a good idea for the council to go ahead with a decision. She stressed that parents already have the option of holding students back in school if they choose, but under the previous policy those students were ineligible for athletics. Noah said she had talked with representatives from surrounding school districts and noted that most allowed students to repeat a grade and play sports, as long as they were eligible academically and not too old.
Kevin Ball, a former basketball coach and the current athletic director at Harlan High School, made the motion to allow holdbacks to participate in athletics. Rose Cohelia seconded the motion, which was passed by a 3-2 margin, with teacher Chris Howard also voting in favor of the change. Cindy Howard and Betsy Burkhart voted against the motion.
During the discussion before the vote, both sides of the debate were represented by parents and council members.
Howard said the council should look at retention rates, and Burkhart pointed out that an increase of students repeating a grade would hurt the district's "non-cognitive" indicators on statewide testing.
Jeff Phillips, a parent of a student in the district, said he was concerned about the effect the new policy will have on the students who don't repeat a grade and cited studies he had reviewed on the subject.
"The reason for school is academic growth, not extracurricular growth," Phillips said. "Student retention information should be based solely on academic performance and/or achievement, not whether a child might do better on the basketball court or football field or baseball field if they have an extra year."
Phillips said he was unaware of any professional athletes from the school district in recent years and very few standout athletes leaving the district for college.
"I do know that we have children leaving this school district making doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers and many other worthwhile professions," he said.
"The question we should ask is, are we here to raise athletes or students who can achieve their greatest academic potential? I truly believe it's the latter."
Lonnie Huff, the middle school basketball coach and a teacher at Harlan Middle School, told the council of his personal experience as a holdback in middle school, saying the extra year helped prepare him for high school.
"I think it helped me socially," Huff said. "It's more than athletics. I would have graduated at 17, so that allowed me to have another year to mature."
Shelby Wilson, a parent and coach in favor of giving parents the option to let their children repeat a grade, said he used athletics to help discipline his children.
"If you don't act right, you don't play ball, and both of my sons love to play ball enough that saves them a lot of trouble and me a lot of trouble," he said. "I may or may not or hold either of my sons back, but I'd like to have an option to hold them back and let them participate in sports."
Wilson said the extra year could also help students become more mature before heading to college.
"It wouldn't have hurt me to have stayed home another year under the guidance of my family," he said.
Steve Vicini, also a parent, said he was against the idea and could find no research that repeating a grade helps a student. He said he had learned from talking with teachers at other schools that students who repeat a grade can cause problems.
"They are bored, they're disruptive," Vicini said. "From what I've read, it would present more bad study habits than anything else because they've already done the work."
Burkhart said it was unrealistic to expect teachers to come up with something new to challenge students who are repeating a grade.
Phillips asked if teachers were prepared to handle the extra assignments for students that will be necessary to "keep those repeating the same classes from being bored and most likely distracting other students."
He also asked what new sports or extracurricular activities will be added to allow students who don't hold back an opportunity to "experience a well-rounded education."
Phillips said the precedent set by implementing the holdback rule "sends a clear message that athletics is more important than academics."
Research, according to Phillips, indicates that holding children back in the middle school grades can cause problems, both for the students holding back and the students in classes with them.
"The only acceptable place to hold a child back is in the primary school," Phillips said. "If parents want their children to be more mature athletes, they should consider delaying their child's start in the primary school or holding them back at that level."
Vicini noted that there can be a large size difference between middle school students who stay back and those who don't.
"It's not fair to the children who don't hold back," he said.
Vicini said the city district shouldn't be concerned with trying to compete with other districts, including Harlan County.
"Not to say anything bad about the county schools, but this is something we have that we can be proud of that they don't," he said.
Vicini referred to photos published in the Enterprise on Wednesday of championship elementary school academic teams at Harlan and Rosspoint. He said he was proud that there weren't any holdbacks on the Harlan team.
Cohelia said most of the information she found on the subject applied to students who failed a grade. The one study she found on students who repeat a grade by choice noted that "it's not likely to carry a social stigma" because retention is usually "carried out with the knowledge and support of the student and family."
Ball stressed that he didn't expect a lot of students to stay back, even with the rule change.