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November 1, 2002
Vol. 44
No. 7

Slowing the Revolving Door

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Throughout the school year, millions of students are on the move. Students change schools as they progress from elementary to middle to high school, of course, but many other school transfers pose unwanted academic and emotional challenges. As educators strive to limit the negative effects of student mobility, they recognize that the repercussions go beyond the individuals changing schools.

Causes and Effects

Students move for many different reasons. Homeless children and the children of migrant workers, single parents, and military personnel are just some examples of mobile students. In Minneapolis, Minn., where mobility affects one in five students, the 1998 Kids Mobility Project Report determined that there are two main reasons families move—family instability and lack of available, safe, and affordable housing.
Similar reasons for mobility are cited in other parts of the country. “Our students move frequently because the dynamics of their families change—mom changes boyfriends, families move in with extended family because of financial difficulties,” says Debbie Crick, principal of Hopkins Academy in the Victoria Independent School District in Texas. Such frequent moves are “far more common among lower income people,” notes Thomas Fowler-Finn, superintendent of Fort Wayne Community Schools in Indiana.
In fact, experts say, there is a strong correlation between poverty and the risk of academic failure, and a strong correlation between poverty and frequent mobility. “Families of color are more likely to be living with poverty, so it's not surprising that these same families are also the most mobile,” adds Barbara Duffield of the National Coalition for the Homeless. Again, studies in Minneapolis found that nearly one in three students identified as African American, Hispanic, or Native American moved at least once within a six-and-a-half month survey period. The combination of poverty and frequent relocations contributes to the achievement gap between poor students of color and their more affluent white counterparts, sources say.
In several states, programs that provide transportation to school, support standard curriculum, and pro-mote family awareness about mobility issues have done much to reduce gaps in attendance and achievement for mobile students. “The 30,000-student Osceola County School District in Florida has one of the highest migration rates I've seen,” says William Bainbridge, president and chief executive officer of SchoolMatch, a research company that collects and examines information about schools. However, he adds, in Osceola, “they're making great strides at reducing mobility [problems] through curriculum coordination” and by promoting awareness of mobility's negative effects. In its 2002 audit, for example, School-Match commended Osceola for high attendance rates across the district and coordination between school and community services.
In fact, providing continuity for students and teachers in all aspects of school life is vital. Frequent school changes break the continuity of the education a student could otherwise receive. Research by the Chicago Panel on School Policy found that, within a school year, teachers in Chicago on average have five to seven students entering and leaving the classroom. “This affects lesson plans, and what you end up with are kids who can't read,” says Barbara Buell, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy organization.
Research by such groups as the Kids Mobility Project shows that students who are highly mobile during the school year can fall four to six months behind their stable peers. “We see these students struggling to keep up, and per-forming below their peers in standard-ized test data. They often do not come to school with supplies, do not have a place to do their homework, and arrive at school hungry and dirty,” says Crick.
Moreover, studies show that highly mobile students have lower attendance and achievement rates and often behave poorly in class because they are acting out some of the psychological stress of living in unstable environments. These findings also have implications for the mobile students' classmates. “Moving causes disruption for all students—stable students have to adapt to new members in their group work, a new focus of their teacher's attention, and a new social situation in the classroom. Continuity is needed for mobile and stable students,” says Fowler-Finn.
And what about the parents? How does high mobility shape the structure of school communities? “For the most part,” says Crick, mobile children “have less support for their studies at home. Their parents are just trying to survive.” Adjusting to a new living situation, and possibly a new job, “limits a parent's ability to participate in the child's education,” Fowler-Finn adds. Often, the parents or guardians have more immediate concerns, such as ensuring the child's health and safety. “They don't know their child's new teacher; they don't know what the homework expectations are,” Fowler-Finn notes. Parents, too, need time to get oriented to the new school, he concludes.

Moving Toward Solutions

The Victoria Independent School District has implemented several programs to address the many, and sometimes basic, needs of its highly mobile student population. “We have parent liaisons—certified teachers at each campus who monitor attendance, facilitate school supply drives, and connect with business and community organizations to help provide students with shelter, food, furniture, and clothing,” Crick explains. The district provides busing for students who move so that they can remain at one school the entire school year.
Furthermore, district standards drive the curriculum at all campuses. These safety nets are designed to ensure that students who do change campuses do not experience gaps in learning, Crick says. Fowler-Finn agrees that a synchronous curriculum is sometimes a mobile student's best defense against such gaps. “Our renewed attention to state standards, parent education about quarterly exams, and focus on a core curriculum make it easier for students” if they must change within the 53 community schools, he says.
Across the United States, a new spin on old legislation is supporting continuity for homeless students, who are one of the most mobile student groups. The McKinney-Vento Act is often referred to as the “one child, one school, one year” act because it allows—and provides transportation for—homeless students to finish the year at their school of origin.
The 2001 reauthorization of the McKinney-Vento Act will likely touch many more mobile students than before because it expands the definition of homeless students to include children who live in motels, reside in substandard housing, or share housing because they lost their own homes. “The majority of homeless youth do not live in shelters, and this legislation recognizes that,” Duffield explains.

Support for Families

Now that help is available, getting information to mobile students and their families about programs and strategies that will help students succeed in school is the next step. The National Coalition for the Homeless, along with other homeless advocacy groups, is currently working to promote awareness among homeless families about their rights under the law.
Information is key to slowing mobility rates but also to speeding up the process of integrating a student into a new school. To this end, the Chicago Panel created a brochure called Don't Leave School Without It, which provides a checklist for parents and guardians transferring their child to a new school. “Bureaucracy can be slow,” says Buell. “Parents can speed up the process of transfer” by hand-carrying forms from the old school to the new one.
The Chicago Panel uses the program Staying Put, an awareness campaign that works to inform families about mobility and strategies to prepare students and schools for unavoidable moves. Suggestions include having students compile a “my best yet” portfolio of their school-work, so students will have samples to show their new teachers.

Schools as Stable Communities

To ensure that mobile students succeed, “it's important for schools to get involved early to support and retain new students and their families,” says Fowler-Finn. In Victoria, Texas, educators have implemented extensive programs—including parenting and literacy classes—to encourage mobile families to participate in the school community.
Less-formal strategies nurture family involvement, too. In Fowler-Finn's district, Weisser Park Elementary extends support by introducing newcomers to another family that has had a student at the school for a year or more. Such a relationship builds a bridge from the new family to caring people in the school community.
Simple actions such as those described above can be the first steps to slowing the swinging door for students. When schools offer this kind of support, according to Duffield, disadvantaged “families have more opportunities to become invested in the community,” and are less likely to leave.

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