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Jimmel Warren, an 8-year-old with deep brown eyes and a shy grin, leans on the counter in the front office of the James Fenimore Cooper Elementary School in Milwaukee, shifting his lanky frame from one foot to the other.

With less than three weeks left in the school year, he is one of two new 2nd graders, a girl and a boy, enrolling at Cooper Elementary this May day.

Jimmel's rites of orientation begin with a hum of questions from members of the office staff. Does your mother have a phone? What about your auntie? Did you bring anything to eat today?

A retired principal volunteering at the school rests a thick, comforting hand on Jimmel's arm. "What a nice, clean, handsome young man you are,'' he says. "I can tell you'll be a good boy.'' Jimmel's body relaxes, his features soften, his smile widens.

Kathleen Avery, a reading resource teacher at the school, ushers him to his new classroom. When the teacher, Charlene Belland, comes to the door, she looks crestfallen.

"Why can't I get the girl?'' she blurts out, her face anguished. "I have 20 boys already; I don't want another boy.''

Words are exchanged between Avery and Belland; Jimmel darts back and forth in the hallway; a rustle of movement and voices--mostly boys'--rises from inside the class.

Belland is apologizing, and Avery is trying to coax Jimmel in. "You have to go in some room,'' she entreats. "Not that one,'' he retorts. Eventually, he gives in.

Composure regained, Belland counsels her students: "When a new person comes, it's up to all of us to welcome him. I didn't do a very good job, and I'm sorry. I guess I was upset. Think how you would feel if you were new. Does anyone have any ideas how we can welcome a new person?''

Most children giggle and fuss, but a few hands shoot up. "You could say 'Welcome to our new school,''' one child suggests.

"I hope you feel at home,'' another offers.

"You could say hi and tell your name, giving a smile,'' one says.

Meetings and greetings are a common ritual for the children and teachers at Cooper, who are painfully accustomed to watching students leave and new ones replace them.

"We could get new kids all the way through June,'' Principal Kathleen Brau says. "It's very disheartening.''

All through the year, scores of children leave, too, with little warning or opportunity to bring their time at Cooper to a close.

"I didn't even have time to check in the child's books or clear the desk, and there was another warm body,'' says 5th-grade teacher Beverly O'Hara, describing one such hasty transition.

"Some of them do not get to know the names of their classmates--they just say 'that boy or girl over there,''' Brau notes.

Teachers at Cooper Elementary look back on childhoods spent in the same neighborhood, friendships that blossomed from kindergarten through high school. And they know those memories would be incomprehensible to many of their students. In the 1992-93 school year, Cooper Elementary had a mobility rate of 53 percent. (The rate is calculated in Milwaukee by adding the number of children who enroll after the third Friday of school and the number who leave during the year and dividing that number by total enrollment at the end of the year.)

Cooper's mobility rate is not unusual for an urban school. The average rate for Milwaukee public elementary schools is around 30 percent. But in some of the nation's most transient districts where some slots turn over several times, schools have mobility rates of more than 100 percent.

A U.S. General Accounting Office report released last February showed that one in six of the nation's 3rd graders--more than a half-million children--have attended at least three schools since the beginning of 1st grade. The children most likely to move are poor, from inner cities, from migrant families, or from families whose native language is not English.

Among the 3rd graders who changed schools frequently, the G.A.O. found, 41 percent were below grade level in reading and 33 percent in mathematics--much higher numbers than for the children who rarely changed schools.

While some families move to better jobs and better homes, high student mobility is being driven largely by conditions common to urban poverty. Students' frequent moves, a 1992 article by the Council for Aid to Education indicates, are most often linked to unemployment and underemployment, shortages of low-cost housing, a large immigrant population, and such family problems as physical abuse, neglect, and drug and alcohol addiction.

Studies by Dr. David Wood, a pediatrician at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, have also shown that children who move repeatedly are more likely to repeat a grade and have behavioral problems than those who don't.

In short, high mobility rates wreak havoc on teaching and learning, and threaten the best reform efforts.

Like many mobile children, Jimmel arrives at Cooper Elementary with no records. If he had come from another Milwaukee school, they would likely show up within a couple of weeks. Since he's from Chicago, it could be weeks, months, or maybe never, teachers say.

"They come without any history,'' reflects Mardi Johnston, the school's half-time art teacher.

Enrollment starts low at Cooper and crests as students straggle in during the first few months. School secretary Cassandra Woznicki's logbooks show that there were 303 students on the first day of school last fall. By the time Jimmel arrives in late May, there are about 400. But the names and faces behind the numbers keep shifting.

Five new students came in after enrollment day in September. In October, there were 23 new ones; November, 34; December, three; January, eight; February, 11; March, 10; April, seven; and May, six, including Jimmel. Fifteen children left in October and another 15 in November. Two more left in December, 10 in January, 12 in February, 18 in March, seven in April. Six have left so far in May.

Of the 57 children in the two 5th-grade classes at this K-5 school, only five have been here since kindergarten and another five since 1st grade.

By the year's end, rosters and seating plans are smudged with scratched-out entries and additions. Behind each one is a story. Jimmel's is still unfolding, and many children come and go with few details of their stories revealed. But their teachers' impressions, together, offer a glimpse into some of those lives, and a look at how a school reacts to the constant reshuffling of faces.

Because parents have to enroll children much earlier than usual to secure a spot in her all-day kindergarten class, Carol Sirko has one of the most stable classrooms. It is a luxury to be able to watch children's language skills improve over the year and pursue projects--like planting seeds or watching tadpoles grow--that lend a sense of continuity. "As a teacher, you feel better, you see hope, you see progress with kids, you feel successful,'' she says.

Those gains, she knows, may be short-lived. In the fall, Sirko brought in a videotape of her class recorded when she won an award three years earlier. Only eight of her 25 students were still at Cooper.

Kathleen Vermillion, who keeps the school-attendance records, is poring over names marked in red in a notebook on her desk. Her job is to try to find the children who are absent without notification from their parents.

"There are probably about three a month who you are trying to track down and you find out they have moved,'' she says. "Some will tell you they are moving, but they don't know where and when; others just pick up and disappear. A week and a half later, they might show up.''

"Most of the time, they don't give you a next address,'' she says. With phones often disconnected and friends and relatives hard to track down, it can take weeks to find out a family has gone.

Some come from more dangerous places, seeking a better life. Some may move to Wisconsin to take advantage of higher welfare benefits but leave when the apartments they share with friends get too cramped or city living too wearying. Along the route are legacies of poverty and family breakups, poor housing and violent neighborhoods, drug-dependent parents, and "children who are so tired because they don't sleep at home because they are scared,'' Vermillion says.

Laying her notebook aside, she gestures across the hall to a poster showcasing photographs of "students of the month'' with lists of their goals and wishes.

"One said his wish was to live to 18,'' she says. "That's not the first time I've seen that.''

Charlene Belland traces the route from Chicago to Milwaukee on a map attached to the blackboard. Jimmel's arrival has become the takeoff point for today's geography lesson.

A student pulls a social-studies book from the desk of a child who is absent and hands it to Jimmel so he can follow the lesson. But he doesn't answer any of the questions Belland poses or put his finger on the map in the book. He hasn't taken his jacket off yet.

Three or four boys are in constant motion, fidgeting, interrupting the teacher, at times taunting and testing Jimmel. "The new boy is trying to start a fight,'' one of the boys complains after Jimmel pokes a finger at him in response to the taunts. Jimmel whispers to him to leave him alone.

Cooper Elementary is on Milwaukee's South Side, in an area that looks more suburban than urban. But because so many students are bused in--nine standard-sized busloads and four smaller buses each day--it lacks the feel of a neighborhood school.

Tensions stemming from the city's court-ordered busing simmer below the surface of some teachers' comments about mobility, and long rides sometimes fuel fights among restless children or leave them weary in the classroom.

High student mobility doesn't keep teachers away--staff turnover is low, and many consider Cooper one of the city's better schools.

"It's smaller, and it hasn't had the kinds of problems that lots of other ... schools have had,'' kindergarten teacher Michele Mushall says. "It's in a nicer neighborhood outside the city, and the people are caring and dedicated.''

Its leadership has been less stable--Brau is the third principal in as many years.

The school's style is overwhelmingly traditional. Most teachers deliver lessons to students arranged in rows, and quiet and order are strictly enforced.

Brau has encouraged the use of portfolio assessments and a wide range of reading and writing approaches. She would like to see better integration of subjects around themes, perhaps more cross-age grouping. She is interested in applying "total quality management''--including more feedback and involvement from teachers and parents--to school administration.

Her wish list includes more computers to prepare children for the challenges of the information age. But anything that requires extra cash is unlikely given the school's "bare bones'' budget. There are few classroom aides and no frills.

The school's mobility patterns also throw budgeting out of whack. Milwaukee public school budgets are allocated on the basis of a tally of students taken on the third Friday after school starts. On the third Friday at Cooper, there were 372 students; by early November, there were 408. The difference, points out Brau, "translates into $32,000.''

Standardized testing is also a problem for schools with high mobility. No matter how hard a teacher tries to convey the material being tested, the composition of the class may be completely different in April and May, when the tests are given, than in the fall. And as the year progresses, teachers maintain, the children they lose tend to be more advanced, while the newer ones are less skilled.

"This year, three children in my class alone moved who were really bright kids--the kinds of kids whose scores you need,'' O'Hara, the 5th-grade teacher, says. "Regardless of whether the test is good or fair and all those issues, mobility is really a factor.'' The test results break out demographic factors, including mobility, Brau says, "but that's not what gets reported.''

Belland's class has been rattled by student moves all year. She started out with 24 students and now has 30. As of the day Jimmel arrives, a total of 12 have left and 15 new ones have come. One girl left after the first five days of school. One boy came in February and was transferred out in May after students spotted a butcher's knife in his schoolbag. Another boy with severe vision problems left his glasses at his grandmother's in Chicago and wasn't able to get new ones for three months. A few others came not knowing how to read. Behavior is a big problem.

"It's hard when you have taught all the rules and procedures in the classroom--you almost have to start over at square one,'' Belland says. The whole complexion of the class has changed since the beginning of the year, she says. "There is no consistency or continuity. You're in the middle of teaching adding and subtracting using regrouping, and you're ready to go on. You get a new child who was not on that chapter in the old school, and he is completely lost.''

When a new child arrives, "it takes me half an hour to sit down and do the puzzle'' of rearranging seats. She likes to pair a new child with one who can help him, but it takes a lot of juggling to do that without upsetting the existing equilibrium.

"When new children come in, they have to feel their way, to see who the top banana is. There's a competition to see where they fit.''

As the children troop off to music class, Belland talks about her reaction when Jimmel arrived. She worries that she may have riled her students. "They were more overt in challenging him,'' she says. "The kids were acting up a lot. Maybe it's my fault. I shouldn't have done that, but you reach a point. ... The people [in the front office] know I have 20 boys.''

All the moves make it difficult for speech therapists Jeanette Slawson and Katherine Treiber to arrange their caseloads and coordinate their schedules with teachers. It's even harder to determine what services children need.

They often come with no records, and parents rarely alert the therapists of any history of special services, Slawson says. "Kids are losing a lot of time, and there is a duplication of resources,'' she says.

"It takes a month for the teacher to realize that the child's skills are not at grade level, and if the child moves to another school, it may take that school another month.'' Once the referral is made, a multi-disciplinary team begins a testing process that may be interrupted again when a child moves. Even when records are sent, the dilemma arises--"Do I finish the testing or start again on my own?''

"It's difficult to work off of someone else's information,'' Treiber observes.

Slawson once decided to continue speech therapy for a girl who was new to the school. "I thought I was being a do-gooder,'' she says. Through a chance encounter with a therapist at the child's last school, she learned the student had already gotten those services and no longer qualified. "It was just luck that I played cards with that pathologist,'' she recalls.

Children with speech problems who move frequently, Slawson says, are "more confused than the typically language-confused child.'' They often are hazy about details of their personal lives, Treiber says. "They'll say they moved to the new house, or the green house.''

Belland's students have settled down, and she patiently explains and quizzes them about antonyms and words with the endings "less'' and "ful.'' The boy sitting next to Jimmel responds eagerly to her questions. When Jimmel seems at a loss, he helps him find his place in the book. But Jimmel doesn't read with the class, and he yawns a lot.

When Belland asks students to draw pictures and write sentences about animals in the story they have just read, Jimmel taps her shoulder and asks to go to the bathroom. As he bolts for the door, his pencil slips from his pocket and into a trash can. He doesn't look back. One of the boys who has been razzing him picks up the pencil and puts it on Jimmel's desk.

Jimmel is gone for nearly 10 minutes. When he comes back, he takes his jacket off. It is 10:30.

Avery, the reading-resource teacher, says she was embarrassed by the scene outside Belland's room when Jimmel arrived. What transpired in the 2nd-grade classroom next door, where the new girl was assigned, was more typical, she says. Students got a little antsy when the teacher cut into her attendance-taking and lunch-money collection to ask the girl a few questions and get her settled. But then things returned to normal.

She acknowledges, though, that Belland's is a difficult class.

Brau, who hears about Jimmel's experience on returning from a meeting out of the building, is livid. The principal makes it clear to the teacher that what happened was contrary to the fundamental mission of the school. "I didn't try to couch it any other way,'' she says.

No one can say why Jimmel was sent to a room already flush with boys, while the new girl was put in a room that is evenly mixed.

"Most of the time we look at the numbers in the classroom,'' Avery says. "At the begining of the year, we try and look at racial, girl/boy balance. But as we get on in the school year, we can't look at that as much--we don't know who's going to be coming in.''

Belland was told she would get a new student the day before and could have brought the matter up then, Avery and Brau say.

"I realize they're frustrated, especially toward the end of the year when they're getting new students. I try to put myself in their position,'' says Avery, whose job tutoring small numbers of children is not touched as directly by the daily disruptions. "Sometimes, they get three students in one class in one week.''

"But I think it's our duty to make them feel welcome.''

David Kucej, the school social worker, picks up where Vermillion leaves off when she can't track down children who have stopped showing up for school. Sometimes, he finds them by talking with social workers at other schools; sometimes by scouring the city's social-services department for information on children in foster care or families receiving other assistance. One year, 27 of the families he had been tracking were living in shelters.

Kucej once volunteered to be guardian for a child whose mother was a recovering drug addict and prostitute. He has also driven sick children home when there was no phone to notify parents and brought parents with no transportation to school to enroll their children.

The families Kujec is tracking move because they can't find decent housing, or because they can't afford their rent and heating bills, or because they tire of living in tight quarters with others.

"The other thing is violence,'' he says. "People are moving out of crack houses constantly. Sometimes, they get burned out of their homes. The phone numbers they leave are friends, neighbors, grocery stores, gas stations--you have to be a detective to find out where they are.''

It's hard to hear him over the din of children wedged onto crowded cafeteria benches, but when asked why he moved from Chicago, it sounds like Jimmel is saying it's because his mom was "sick and tired of the shooting.'' His father, he says, is in Minnesota. Jimmel doesn't like it here so far "because those boys are messing with me.''

Michele Mushall, who teaches half-day kindergarten, tries to address her students' social, emotional, physical, and cognitive needs to give them a strong foundation for 1st grade. Letter sounds and math concepts are embedded in a curriculum rich in language and literature, paints and puzzles.

But the changing cast of children gives the room the feel of a sinking ship. Mushall started with about 12 children in her morning class, and eventually got 27. She now has 25, few of them from the original group.

"The kids tend not to bond or have friendships. They don't know if the person sitting next to them is going to be there tomorrow,'' she says. "During play time, they play by themselves. They don't have the initiative to seek out others. Their behavior in class is inconsistent. They're usually quiet the first day, feeling things out. Then, they tend to be a little bit more disruptive--they don't take rules to heart until they go through the consequences.''

"You tend to want to slow down and wait for a more stable group, but you can't really do that because they will get too far behind. The ones who are there need the education. You can't deny them.''

"Along with mobility goes the absences--a lot are absent once or twice a week,'' Mushall adds.

"I feel a sadness when I lose kids. I see that as a setback--they're not going to be able to keep going academically at the same rate. There will be a whole new adjustment process.''

Jimmel looks carefree and light on his feet as he bounds around the schoolyard during recess. He is playing an impromptu game of tag with a girl from his class, chasing her and tapping her until she notices him and chases him back. She is laughing, and the exchange is good-natured. During the break, Jimmel wanders a lot, lingering on the edges of groups of children tossing balls, jumping rope, shooting baskets. Sometimes, he worms his way into their circle enough to get a turn, but he never quite blends in.

After recess, the whole school assembles in the cafeteria. Brau presents awards for good behavior, academics, attendance, citizenship, and other hallmarks of school success. Each announcement produces proud faces and enthusiastic applause.

When Belland's students are asked to stand for a class award, Jimmel springs up with his classmates, grinning broadly.

Mardi Johnston, the art teacher, doesn't know what to do with the ceramic pots made by children who left between the time they formed the clay and she took it to another school to fire in the kiln.

"Every week that I've been here, someone new comes in,'' she says. "Kids are missing out on the art history, the motivation. They aren't here for the vocabulary words, the technique. I have to just be very flexible. I give them paint and a piece of paper if they come in on the last day of a project.''

Besides moves during the school year, she notes, "people aren't spending the summer as a family nucleus--they are going to live in different places. Then, they all regroup in the fall and move somewhere else.''

In one family she describes, the child was spending the summer with his biological father in one city, while his mother and her current husband went somewhere else and his stepbrother was sent to live with other relatives.

"You wonder what the impact will be on kids later on--whether they'll move a lot, too,'' Johnston says.

Jimmel is still smiling in the last hour of the school day, but he's not paying much attention to the discussion on a children's current-events publication Belland has handed out. He and one of the earlier instigators wrangle over a bag of crayons throughout the lesson, and, at one point, Jimmel asks to go to the washroom again.

When Belland asks a student to hand out homework papers to everyone, the boy with the crayons sneers: "Except the new boy. He too ugly.'' "Your momma too ugly,'' Jimmel shoots back, triggering a scuffle that Belland quickly stifles.

Lonna Wiedmeyer, the school's part-time guidance counselor, worries a lot about the children she loses contact with after working long and hard to gain their trust.

"Sometimes, the kid gets lost and you wonder: Are they dead? Are they at another school? My concern is that many never do get help or establish a trusting relationship with an adult. It takes time to establish a rapport with children. It's really important for the counseling relationship to work. Many schools don't have guidance counselors, so it isn't possible to follow up.''

Wiedmeyer, who also works at other schools, once encountered a child whose mother had arranged to have him attend school in another city but didn't tell him. "He overheard his mother discussing it on the phone the day of the move, and he went beserk in school,'' she recalls. The child "had to be restrained by school personnel--he was screaming, crying, smashing things.'' The parent had called the school, she said, and asked that the child not be told it was his last day.

When school lets out at Cooper Elementary, a voice on the intercom begins summoning children to their buses. Pupils, lined up in neat rows by their classroom doors, spring into action when they hear their buses called. Jimmel stands motionless in the hall with Belland by his side while they wait for someone to tell them which bus is his. The spark in his eyes has been replaced by vulnerability, the restlessness and bravado are gone. For the first time, he looks lost.

"The ones I see come from one dangerous environment to another,'' says Irene Panagopolous, a psychologist who works part time at the school. Take the children who witnessed a shooting at their previous school, or the mother in a drug-treatment facility who was going to regain custody but had to send her child to live with relatives because she has H.I.V.

"That kind of story is not uncommon,'' Panagopolous says.

"Families are living with people temporarily, not in their own apartments. They may be in a shelter situation or running from someone who has been abusive toward them.'' One little boy whose father got shot is traumatized by images of him.

Jimmel arrives again on his second day with no lunch or lunch money, so Belland sends him to the office to pick up the form his mother will need to fill out to qualify for free meals. For today, Woznicki explains, they will order him a peanut-butter sandwich. Jimmel's face scrunches into a grimace. He's still shrouded in his hooded gray sweatshirt.

"Take your hood off now,'' Woznicki chides, but he only unrolls it partway.

New students can pay a heavy toll for appearing vulnerable, Richard Klejsmit, a 4th-grade teacher, notes. "One kid, within two weeks, got beat up five times. He had moved because his parents got divorced and his mother took him out of parochial school. The first day he came in, he broke down crying. Other students saw it as a sign of weakness and took advantage of it. A new person coming in has to fight his way toward acceptance. It's never an easy transition.''

When students have been through it themselves, are they more sympathetic? Not necessarily, Klejsmit says. "It almost makes them more defensive.''

Klejsmit, who has been at Cooper Elementary for nearly 30 years and is getting ready to retire, has lost a third of his class--nine students within the past three months; four have been replaced.

"All you can do is basically continue exactly what you are doing--you really can't go back and repeat everything,'' he says. "You just hope they can catch up. You can give them extra tutoring, or if they are really behind in reading you can send them to the reading teacher.''

The fluctuation in his class has been worse this year than usual, Klesjmit says, and his group is argumentative and difficult to control. "Substitutes,'' he says, "have refused to come back.''

The child whose seat Jimmel had yesterday is back in today, so Belland puts him in the empty seat of another absent student in the back of the room. He spends more time today trying to follow the work sheets Belland hands out with some guidance from his seatmate--but appears to lose concentration easily. When the class is asked to draw pictures of pairs of opposites and hold them up, he keeps his paper on his desk. He gets up and walks around unnoticed by Belland a few times, once lifting a book off a nearby table and leafing through it. He raises his hand for the first time during a lesson on telling time. Belland doesn't call on him, but he utters the answer out loud to himself. It's a bull's-eye.

Mobility has created a different set of issues for O'Hara. A fan of cooperative learning, she has coached her 5th graders and organized her room to spur problem-solving and collaboration.

When new students come, she says, "over all, kids are lenient--they bend over backward to work things out because that's what we stress.'' She intervenes "only if they can't work it out.''

But the arrangement is tough for new students. "We've spent a whole year talking about how to work together and cooperate, and here we get new children who've never been taught that. They're trying to fit in with their peers, and they have to learn real hard skills about how to work in a group.''

O'Hara has also worked hard to institute portfolios. All year, children store samples of their work, favorite projects, and reference materials in various folders that can offer a valuable composite of student performance.

When new arrivals come, "you have to rely on kids to help set up other kids'' with folders, O'Hara says. "It's real time-consuming,'' she explains. "They don't feel like they are part of the room no matter what you do.''

O'Hara points to a stack of folders children have left behind. She holds out hope that someone will retrieve them. "I like to give them their portfolios--the projects they've worked on all year. If you send them to another school, they may get trashed.''

O'Hara grows more downcast as she starts telling personal stories.

"One little girl was telling us how much she was going to miss her two new friends'' when she moved so her father could take over her aging grandfather's business, O'Hara recalls. "She had started in September and left the beginning of April. She was very popular, involved in a lot of activities. But she was very shy, so the friendships she formed with these two girls were very special.''

At lunch in the teacher's lounge, Belland is optimistic that things went better for Jimmel today. "I gave him his books, and he put his name in, and I sat him with a boy I thought he could work with.'' She was worried he might not be able to read. But when she called on him, "He read out loud. He read a sentence and filled in a blank.''

Sometimes, new students don't want to read because they can't and they're embarrassed, she observes. But Jimmel's initial unresponsiveness is not unusual for a new student. "Sometimes, they don't work right away; they spend the first couple of days looking around the room and seeing what people are doing.''

One of Roberta Wittig's 3rd graders who arrived in March had already been in three schools since the beginning of the year and six--with two of those stays broken up--since starting school. Even since he's been at Cooper Elementary, he's moved three times.

He was found to have a learning disability, but has not gotten any special help because he's been absent so much.

"They limit those placements. They don't want to give them to children who are only here part time,'' Wittig says. "He doesn't come enough, and, when he does, he doesn't get the attention he needs.''

When one 3rd grader came to school in October, it was his first time in school in a year and a half. He didn't know the alphabet. He has been spending time daily with the mathematics and reading resource teachers, and working with a peer tutor.

"But he's so proud, he doesn't want to ask questions,'' she sighs. "How do you bridge that gap without sacrificing the kids who are on level?'' Wittig wonders.

Since Jimmel arrived two days ago, Belland notes, two more children have been dropped from her rolls. Belland remembers one girl describing problems her family was having in an apartment they shared with other people. Her mother talked about moving in with the girl's grandmother, "But this was the first official notice I've gotten.''

It is not unusual for a child to offer teachers clues that they may be moving. "But you can't always go by what kids say,'' 4th-grade teacher Sheila King cautions.

"Some come in the middle of the day with no advance notice. There is a good half-hour or 45-minute disruption where you are not able to talk to other kids while you try to make the child comfortable. I've had to change my way of teaching just to hang onto books,'' King says. She now prepares her own homework materials and encourages children to use the library because she knows books sent home may be lost in the moving shuffle.

"There's no sense of community; this is just one more stop along their way,'' 3rd-grade teacher Patrick Kelly says.

"I won't say it's not a disruption,'' says one teacher who prefers not to be identified. "But on my scale, mobility is not the biggest area of concern.'' Promoting self-esteem, human relations, and an "acceptance of cultures,'' the teacher suggests, will go a long way to help children from any background blend in.

"I'm supposed to be able to surmount any barrier. I can't look at mobility, class status, male or female, race, special education. I look at the total human being. You hope for the length of time a child is with you that you make an impression. I can only make my corner bright.''

After her 1st graders greet her in unison, Rose Haas lays out the day for them in a gentle, inviting voice. There will be big books and painting, a session with their "reading buddies'' in 3rd grade, a lesson on what tadpoles eat that includes boiling lettuce. Children look rapt as she speaks.

Haas was prepared to welcome another boy who was supposed to enroll the day Jimmel and the new girl started. She knows just what steps she would take to introduce him and how she would try to involve the others.

"I was kind of upset yesterday when I found out, but you have to keep a positive attitude.''

Three days later, the new student still isn't here. He could show up in the last few days of school, or not at all. "Often, they don't come because they can't afford clothes,'' Brau, the principal, observes.

The four mothers sipping coffee at a breakfast for school volunteers all have children in 4th grade who have been at Cooper Elementary since kindergarten. All are on the parent-teacher organization board and attend activities at the school regularly--but often alone.

Parents responding to a school survey praised the school for its caring staff and nurturing atmosphere. A father stopping by to pick up his preschooler echoes those sentiments. He's sorry his two children will have to change schools next year when the family moves because of job transfers.

Mobility makes it hard to draw volunteers or attract parents to school programs, the P.T.O. board members say. Evening parenting classes drew only a few comers, as did a program on violence by the Milwaukee police department.

Sue Griffin, who works with learning-disabled children and is also on the P.T.O. board, knows it may be hard for parents who live on the other side of town to get here. But she's also frustrated by the lack of contact. "I have kids I've seen for two or three years, and I've never met their parents.''

Although everyone at Cooper Elementary is touched in some way by student moves, it's not something they talk about to parents. Most believe that when families move in search of a better life, it is futile, and ill-advised, to interfere.

"I don't think this is an area we can influence. It's like getting involved in their personal life,'' Brau says.

"I've never talked to a parent about that. I have only said that I feel bad the child is leaving and I hope it works out,'' Haas says. "I think a lot of families are genuinely sad, but they want to get out of the city.''

"I don't think they realize how it impacts on them'' when children move a lot, Panagopolous, the psychologist, says. "Typically, they don't know why the child is behind. They just want some kind of help.''

"Parents are being squeezed so tight that these kids are just another casualty,'' Wittig observes. "These are for the most part parents you never get to talk to anyway. They don't come to conferences, and you call them on the phone and get an unpublished or a disconnected number. Or the person who answers has no clue. You just don't get a lot of answers.''

When you call the telephone number that Jimmel gave the school, the woman who answers says she is a friend of the boy's mother. If you call back at an arranged time, she says, she will have Jimmel's mother there so she can take your call. The appointed time comes, the call is placed, and no one responds. The scene is replayed a couple of days later, only this time the friend is less specific about when Jimmel's mother might stop by. "Maybe later today,'' she offers. The next day, her phone has been disconnected.

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