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A Community Solution

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Many educators in schools with high mobility rates feel powerless to do anything but shuffle seats around and make do as best they can as children stream in and out. The social woes that keep students on the move--from inadequate housing to dysfunctional families--seem hopelessly beyond their control.

But for the past six years, David Schuler, a Rochester, N.Y., landlord, has been trying to prove that schools and communities can work together to stabilize neighborhoods.

"The key thing,'' he says, "is to create a desire for parents to stay.''

As the president of the Apartment Owners Association of Rochester, Schuler knew the hassles and lost revenues landlords faced when families moved a lot. But in a casual chat with an elementary principal, he was startled to learn no one had studied the impact of moves on children's schooling.

Schuler, who has a master's degree in marketing, set out to quantify the effects of high student mobility in a study of the district's largest school, known as School No. 9. Factoring out children with limited English skills and special-education students, he compared the achievement scores of 66 mobile and 187 stable students in grades 3 to 6. The study, which was published in the fall 1990 issue of the Educational Research Service journal E.R.S. Spectrum, showed that students who moved often consistently lagged behind their more stable peers in reading and mathematics.

Schuler and his group did not leave their data to gather dust on academic shelves. Working with the school and the community, they started a countywide program in 1988 to help educate parents about the impact of moves on children's schooling. They offered to settle landlord disputes or help families find housing in their school-attendance area if they had to move. They negotiated a change in county welfare policy to deter rent-skipping and got social-services officials to stress the importance of school stability to welfare clients.

The group also carved out a special identity for School No. 9 in the community. Students, parents, teachers, clergy, and businesses worked to instill pride in the school and support students' accomplishments through emblems and mascots, parades and contests, plays and field trips.

Shopowners posted notices and maps of the area around the school urging citizens to get involved.

With grants from the Rochester Area Foundation and the Monroe County social-services department, two other schools have launched similar efforts, and more are expected to follow suit. The landlords have also helped negotiate more changes in welfare and housing policies designed to curb mobility. And they've started announcing apartment vacancies by school area and inviting low-income tenants to pick their own carpeting and paint.

School No. 9's mobility rate fell sharply in the first year of the project and has declined steadily since, from 72.8 percent in 1987-88 to 47.5 percent in 1992-93. The districtwide mobility rate fell from 64.3 percent to 54.6 percent in the project's first year, and stood at 58.8 percent at the end of the 1992-93 school year.

Rochester school officials stress that reducing mobility has not cured all the social and academic ills of the children at School No. 9, a low-peforming school in a poor urban area. And they still see mobility as a serious problem for the district--one inextricably linked to rising child poverty.

But Schuler, who is attempting to spread his work to other cities, insists that schools and their communities can make a difference.

Bonita Hindman, the director of grants and programs for the Rochester Area Foundation, agrees.

"As the school becomes more of a community center, one of the fallouts will be that people will stay there longer,'' she reflects.

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