When Raiden was in first grade, he was constantly in motion and seldom without a smile. At 7, he liked cars and wrestling his little brother. But in school, he struggled.
His mom, Angela Williams, asked him why his behavior wasn’t better.
"Because I don't like school," Raiden told her. "It's too hard. I don't want to go to second grade." That was four years ago. Now, along with other kids his age, he's heading to middle school. Raiden is part of the Class of 2025 — the first cohort that Oregon expects to achieve a perfect rate of high school completion when they're seniors.
OPB has been following Raiden and 26 of his classmates since they started together at Earl Boyles Elementary School in Southeast Portland. Some are doing well in school. Others are behind academically. But they're all moving forward. Raiden has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, and even with medication, focusing for long periods is tough for him. He gets extra support for reading and math and has been on behavior plans for years.
Two years ago, his family moved to Vancouver, Washington. About the same time, Williams had a third child.
In talking about her son, Williams would sometimes mistakenly say he was in fourth grade when he was actually in fifth. She laughed about it during one visit with OPB.
“That’s because I don’t want you to grow up I guess," she told him. "Put you back.”
Over the years, Williams has suggested something close: having Raiden repeat a grade. She recalls bringing it up with the principal back when they lived in Portland. "First grade and kindergarten, pretty much the focus was on his behavior and not education," she recalled.
Raiden could be disruptive and even frighten other students in those early years. Teachers kept a close eye on him and put him on behavior plans that offered positive reinforcement for times he stayed on task and followed school rules. But Williams felt Raiden's academics suffered, and she said he's never been able to make up for it.
Holding Raiden back was, however, a non-starter with his principal.
"I guess statistics show that if they were to hold him back, that people would make fun of him, he’d be laughed at," Williams said. "He would be humiliated, so it’s not worth it, that he’ll catch up.”
She said holding students back was not any more popular at Riverview Elementary in Vancouver.
“They’ve never said anything about it, they just keep saying ‘He’ll catch up, he’ll catch up,'" she said.
. Data show that students of color were more likely to repeat a grade. More recently, schools have prioritized offering extra support as struggling students are promoted with their peers.
But the proper course is still up for debate.
Research in the last year, highlighted by NPR, shows academic benefits to holding students back, though it's not clear it helps kids graduate. That research was based on the experience of the state of Florida where grade retention, the practice of making students repeat a year, is now part of regular school discussions. Schools in Washington are also required to talk about steps such as holding students back with parents of students who test behind in third-grade reading. Raiden attended third grade in Oregon, where there's no such law. In both Oregon and Washington, only about two third graders in 1,000 are held back each year. Raiden had a really tough fourth-grade year at Riverview Elementary. He didn't like his teacher. He got in trouble. Administrators suspended him. He was receiving extra help, but still not catching up. "He's still below," Williams said. "He doesn't even meet average charts where he should be. He's below on everything." In recent years, Raiden has found ways to get through. He works hard.
During one recent OPB visit, he paused as he read a passage about the Revolutionary War. He sounded out the word "parliament," and knew "Massachusetts" right away, but needed a classmate to help him with the word "isolate." Raiden's teacher, Angie Swanson, said that if Raiden were to repeat a grade, it needed to happen years ago. She's known only one student to repeat fifth grade. "She was always behind, but now that she's in older grades I think it made a difference because she was able to fill in some of the gaps," Swanson said.
Swanson said she didn't know if repeating a grade would substantially help. "He's got big gaps." Raiden showed some promising signs in fifth grade. He liked school more, looked forward to band and had fun doing a class presentation on the black panther — the animal, not the superhero.
Swanson said Raiden is doing better now than back in fourth grade. She credits Raiden’s mom for staying supportive.
As Swanson walked around the classroom, looking at art projects in her fifth-grade room, she remembered one more thing about Raiden: Like many active kids, he loves recess. But near the end of the school year, he stayed inside for consecutive days to make his mom a birthday present.
“I made a dolphin picture for my mom," Raiden said, "because she does everything for me.”
Swanson suspects Raiden's school performance improved because life at home grew more stable. Raiden said it's because he's getting along better with his teachers and classmates.
He's worried about next year because some of his friends may attend a different middle school.
Raiden’s mother is also anxious. Teachers have often given Raiden extra attention to make sure he’s on task. In middle school, Williams knows more of that is on Raiden.
“I know Raiden will have several classes and a lot of transitions and a lot more responsibility,” she said. Swanson agreed that Raiden may struggle with the new expectations of middle school, and may even get “lost.” Academics won’t be easy, either. “He’s going to be low and it’s going to be really hard for him,” Swanson said. “But if he can keep his focus, I think he’ll do average. I mean he’s never going to be zooming through everything. He’s going to have to work at it.” Raiden is excited about middle school. He said he knows what it’ll take. “Trying my best and working hard and having courage in myself,” Raiden said. Moving on to middle school means Raiden gets to stay with his peers. But it also means another school where he’ll be doing his best to catch up.