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DeSantis said any student could repeat a grade next year. It’s not turning out that way.

The pledge came because of fears that students would fall behind when Florida schools turned to online learning. But the governor never officially ordered it.

Jim and Amy Cracchiolo almost couldn’t believe what they heard as they watched Gov. Ron DeSantis speak just after 5 p.m. on March 17.

“Parents may, at their discretion, choose to keep their child in the same grade for the 20-21 school year” if worried about learning lost during remote learning, DeSantis said in the first minute of his speech announcing campuses would remain closed after spring break because of COVID-19.

The Cracchiolos, teachers whose son Payton has significant special education needs, viewed the governor’s words as a lifeline.

“We looked at each other and said, ‘Did you hear what he just said?’ This could be the solution to the wall,” Jim Cracchiolo said.

He referred to the obstacles the family encountered in attempting to have the 12-year-old, who already repeated one grade previously, remain in fifth grade at Pasco County’s Lake Myrtle Elementary. They wanted to get him caught up academically. Payton is at least two grades behind in reading, struggles in math and has other issues that would make the transition into middle school difficult, his dad said.

The family already was exploring Payton’s options before COVID-19, and the extended stint away from teachers and classmates didn’t help.

Yet when they asked to follow the governor’s clear statement, their school principal said “no.” That’s when the parents learned that just because the governor said they should have discretion over the matter, that didn’t make it so.

While DeSantis expressed an intention, he didn’t memorialize it in any executive order changing the state’s laws on student progression. And when the Department of Education, run by a commissioner hand-picked by the governor, issued guidance to districts days later, it softened the governor’s stance.

Yes, parents could request retention for their children, the department stated. They have an important role in the process.

Fifth-grader Payton Cracchiolo works on a school assignment during remote learning in spring 2020. His parents want Payton to repeat the grade, saying he did not make enough progress while taking classes from home. [ Courtesy of Jim Cracchiolo ]

But “promotion decisions should be made in consultation with parents, teachers and school leaders based on the students’ classroom performance and progress monitoring data,” it concluded.

Each student is unique, and no single directive could achieve the best outcome for everyone, said department spokeswoman Taryn Fenske, adding that the department wants to ensure that every student’s needs are met. If that couldn’t happen at the local level, she said, the department would help any family that reaches out.

That happened in one similar Manatee County case, reported by the Bradenton Herald. And the vice chancellor for K-12 education offered assistance to the Cracchiolos after learning of their situation.

Other cases have been few and far between.

“We’ve had a small number,” said Pinellas County associate superintendent Kevin Hendrick.

In each instance, he said, the principal is responsible for the decision, as outlined in the state’s law on student progression. Hendrick noted the district’s procedure, outlined for parents in a recent memo, makes clear that decisions will not be made solely based on results from distance learning, but rather on the entirety of the school year.

That’s similar to the approach of the Hillsborough County school district, spokeswoman Tanya Arja said.

And it’s entirely appropriate, said Pasco County student services director Melissa Musselwhite, because otherwise parents might seek to hold their children back for reasons that have nothing to do with their learning.

“We have had parents who have requested to hold students back in high school because they haven’t had a full senior experience,” Musselwhite said.

Yet those students had high grade-point averages and completed all the required credits.

“If you have passed and mastered all the standards, there is no reason to hold you back,” she said.

She would not discuss the Cracchiolos’ case. But she said the district would take a closer look.

Jim Cracchiolo said he doesn’t necessarily want Payton to stay in fifth grade. He knows the social and emotional problems that can come with such a decision.

However, he looked at the state law, too, and wondered how a school might get away with promoting a child who has not met all the academic requirements — as he said Payton has not. Then he also reviewed the options available at middle school, and found the programs available to his son as not appropriate to meet his needs.

For instance, Payton needs better daily reading instruction than 50 minutes of a grade-level work that’s too difficult, combined with 15 minutes of remedial work.

So far, he hasn’t gotten the school leadership to change its position. Officials initially said he would have to appeal the decision.

On Wednesday, he got a call saying the district would review the case, including asking Payton’s special education team for input. Cracchiolo said he hoped the process would lead to a positive outcome for Payton, looking at the services he receives and the learning environment he’s placed into.

“An additional year could open doors for him,” Cracchiolo said, noting that Payton made strides until distance learning. “If one year makes the difference, then that’s something we really have to ask for, that we have to stand up for.”

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