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A State Experiment

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One of the largest-scale experiments to address the problem of high student mobility began in Wisconsin.

In 1987, the state education department launched a program in more than 30 schools in Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha, and Beloit to boost the achievement of disadvantaged children from preschool through grade 5. The "P-5'' projects feature such reforms as smaller classes, better student monitoring, new language and writing programs, and science and computer laboratories.

Although the program was well received, after a few years it became clear that many students were moving too often to feel its impact. Students' frequent moves were also making it difficult to evaluate the program.

"Our efforts seemed to be defeated because of student movement, so we went back to the state legislature to get a transportation component'' says Albert P. Cooper, the coordinator of the P-5 program for the Milwaukee public schools.

As a result, in 1989, about 20 Milwaukee schools began receiving $150,000 a year to pay for buses to transport children who moved back to their old schools.

Preliminary studies don't show conclusively how much the busing affected student achievement, but they do suggest that teacher morale improved. In 1992, however, state budget woes forced the district to pare the busing funds to $67,000 and to restrict their use to moves within a three-mile radius of the child's original school.

A proposal to expand P-5 and provide funds to keep children in pilot schools from kindergarten through grade 3 failed in the legislature this year.

Around the time the legislature added transportation money to the P-5 program, Milwaukee's school superintendent, Robert S. Peterkin, authorized an additional $250,000 to help keep children in all city public schools when they moved. But he ended the program after two years when the cost grew to $400,000.

"The emphasis was on keeping kids in school, and it made a difference,'' says Kathleen Brau, the principal of the James Fenimore Cooper Elementary School. "Test scores were on the rise, and teachers felt better.''

While the money for buses was helpful, other principals agree, solving the mobility dilemma demands a lot more than transportation and many more players than the schools.

For James Novak, the principal of the James Whitcomb Riley Elementary School, part of the answer lies in restoring the schools' role as a "beacon in the community''--a welcoming, thriving center for family life, complemented by city services ranging from parks to playgrounds to parent education.

Better housing and opportunities for home ownership are part of the puzzle, notes Reuben Harpole, a community activist and urban-outreach specialist at the University of Wisconsin's Civic Center Campus. But so, he says, are jobs, access to services, and, most of all, a spirit of "inclusion.''

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