Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

By Deborah L. Cohen — October 01, 1994 27 min read

Jimmel Warren, an 8-year-old with deep brown eyes and a shy grin, leans on the counter in the front office of Milwaukee’s James Fenimore Cooper Elementary School, shifting his lanky frame from one foot to the other. He is one of two new 2nd graders--the other is a girl--enrolling at Cooper on this May day, less than three weeks before the end of the school year.

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 who volunteers 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, and his smile widens.

Kathleen Avery, a reading resource teacher at the school, ushers Jimmel to his new classroom. When teacher Charlene Belland comes to the door, she looks crestfallen. “Why can’t I get the girl?’' she blurts out, her face contorted. “I have 20 boys already; I don’t want another boy.’'

Avery and Belland exchange words. Jimmel, meanwhile, darts back and forth in the hallway. A rustle of movement and voices--mostly boys'--rises from inside the classroom. Belland apologizes to Jimmel, but when Avery tries to coax him into the room, he resists.

“You have to go in some room,’' she entreats.

“Not that one,’' he retorts. But eventually, he gives in and enters Belland’s classroom.

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 of the 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 of Cooper Elementary; they are painfully accustomed to watching students come and go. “We could get new kids all the way through June,’' principal Kathleen Brau says. “It’s very disheartening.’'

Many children leave with little warning. Often, teachers don’t even have an opportunity to bring a child’s time at the school to a proper close. Describing one such hasty departure, 5th grade teacher Beverly O’Hara says, “I didn’t even have time to check in the child’s books or clear the desk, and there was another warm body’’ in the seat.

Some of the children, Brau notes, “do not get to know the names of their classmates. They just say, ‘That boy or girl over there.’ ''

Most teachers at Cooper Elementary look back at their own childhoods and remember what it was like to grow up in one neighborhood and form friendships that lasted from kindergarten through high school. Such memories, they know, would be incomprehensible to many of their students. During the 1992-93 school year, Cooper had a mobility rate of 53 percent. (In Milwaukee, the rate is calculated by adding the number of children who enroll after the third Friday of the school year and the number who leave during the year and dividing that number by total enrollment at the end of the year.)

Cooper’s rate is not unusual for an urban public school. The average in Milwaukee fluctuates around 30 percent. But in the nation’s most transient districts, some school mobility rates exceed 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--has attended at least three schools since the beginning of 1st grade. The children most likely to move are poor and from inner cities, migrant families, or families whose native language is not English. Among the 3rd graders who changed schools most frequently, the GAO found, 41 percent were below grade level in reading and 33 percent in mathematics--much higher numbers than for children who rarely changed schools.

Some families, of course, move to better jobs and better homes. But for students who move often, the cause is commonly the result of conditions linked to urban poverty. High student mobility, according to a 1992 article prepared by the Council for Aid to Education, is most often associated with unemployment and underemployment, shortages of low-cost housing, a large immigrant population, and such family problems as abuse, neglect, and drug and alcohol addiction.

Studies by David Wood, a pediatrician at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, have found that children who move often are more likely to repeat a grade and have behavioral problems than those who don’t. In short, high mobility rates can wreak havoc on teaching and learning.

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 week or two. But because he’s from Chicago, it could be weeks, months, or maybe never. “They come without any history,’' laments 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 of the school year. School secretary Cassandra Woznicki’s logbooks show that there were 303 students on the first day of the 1993-94 school year. By the time of Jimmel’s arrival in late May, there are about 400, but the names and faces behind the numbers have been shifting constantly.

Five new students came in after the final enrollment day in September. In October, 23 new students arrived. There were 34 in November, three in December, eight in January, 11 in February, 10 in March, seven in April, and six in May, including Jimmel. And that is just half the story. Fifteen students 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, and six 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 end of each year, rosters and seating plans are smudged with scratched-out entries and additions. There’s a story behind each change, but many children come and go without revealing the details. Teachers are left with only vague impressions of their students’ lives.

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

Those gains, she knows, may be short-lived; many of her students will eventually move on. Last fall, Sirko watched a videotape of the class she taught three years ago. Only eight of her 25 students that year were still at Cooper.

In the office, Kathleen Vermillion, keeper of attendance records, pores over a notebook on her desk. Several names on the lists are marked with red. She is trying to find out whether these absent children are sick or have left Cooper altogether. “There are probably about three a month whom 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. Most of the time, they don’t give you a next address.’' With their phones disconnected and friends and relatives hard to track down, it can take weeks to find out if a family has gone.

Some families come to Milwaukee from more dangerous places, seeking a better life. Some move to Wisconsin to take advantage of better welfare benefits. They may turn around and leave when the apartments they share with friends get too cramped or city living becomes too wearying. For the children, it’s a life often scarred by poverty and family breakups, poor housing and violent neighborhoods, and drug-dependent parents. Vermillion says she knows children who are tired all the time. “They don’t sleep at home,’' she says, “because they are scared.’'

Putting her notebook aside, Vermillion gestures across the hall to a poster showcasing photographs of “students of the month’’ and lists of their goals and desires. “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 even taken his jacket off yet.

Three or four of the other boys are in constant motion, fidgeting, interrupting the teacher, and 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 gibes. Jimmel, in a whisper, tells the boy 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, Cooper lacks the feel of a neighborhood school. Sometimes, the long bus ride fuels fights among restless children or leaves them weary once they get to the classroom. For these and other reasons, the court-ordered busing rubs some teachers the wrong way.

Despite such distractions, staff turnover at Cooper is low. Many teachers, in fact, consider it 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.’'

But the school leadership recently has been more in keeping with the student population; Brau is the third principal in as many years.

Teachers at Cooper are, for the most part, traditionalists when it comes to classroom instruction. Most deliver their lessons to students seated in rows, and quiet and order are strictly enforced. Brau has encouraged teachers to experiment with student portfolios and a wide range of reading and writing approaches. She would also like to see better integration of subjects around themes and perhaps more cross-age grouping. She is interested in “total quality management’’ and seeks more feedback and involvement from parents and teachers. Additional classroom computers are high on her wish list, but anything that costs money 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 based on student enrollment on the third Friday after school starts. On that day, Cooper had 372 students. By early November, however, there were 408 students enrolled. The difference, Brau points out, “translates into $32,000.’'

Standardized testing is also a problem. No matter how hard teachers try to prepare their students for the material on the tests, the shifting composition of their classes over the course of the year makes it nearly impossible. In fact, the teachers find that the children they lose as the year progresses tend to be more skilled than the ones who replace them. “This year,’' O’Hara, the 5th grade teacher, says, “three children in my class alone moved who were really bright kids--the kind of kids whose scores you need. Regardless of whether the test is good or fair and all those issues, mobility is really a factor.’'

All year long, Belland’s class has been rattled by high student turnover. She started out with 24 students and now has 30. As of Jimmel’s arrival, 12 have left and 15 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. One new boy with severe vision problems left his glasses at his grandmother’s house in Chicago and wasn’t able to get new ones for three months. Other students arrived not knowing how to read. Disruptive behavior is a big problem. “It’s hard when you have taught all the rules and procedures in the classroom,’' Belland says. “You almost have to start over at square one.’'

The whole complexion of her class has changed since the beginning of the year. “There is no consistency or continuity,’' she complains. “You’re in the middle of teaching adding and subtracting using regrouping, and you’re ready to go on. [Then] you get a new child who was not on that chapter in the old school, and he is completely lost.’'

Belland likes to pair new arrivals with students who can help them, but it takes a lot of juggling to do that without upsetting the existing equilibrium. “When new children come in,’' she says, “they have to feel their way, to see who the top banana is. There’s a competition to see where they fit.’'

As her students troop off to music class, Belland talks about her negative reaction to Jimmel’s arrival. 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.’'

A little later, Belland patiently teaches a lesson on antonyms and words with the endings "-less’’ and "-ful.’' She quizzes the class as she goes along. 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.

Later, when Belland asks students to draw pictures and write sentences about animals in the story they have just read, Jimmel taps her on the 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 have 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 finally 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 usual routine to ask the girl a few questions and get her settled, but things quickly returned to normal.

She acknowledges, though, that Belland’s class is difficult.

Brau, who hears about Jimmel’s experience when she returns from a meeting out of the building, is livid. The principal makes it clear to Belland that the way she behaved is contrary to the fundamental mission of the school. Still, no one seems to know 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 beginning of the year, we try to look at racial and 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 be getting a new student the day before Jimmel arrived; that was the time to voice her preference for a girl, both Avery and Brau say. “I realize they’re frustrated, especially toward the end of the year when they’re getting new students,’' says Avery, whose job involves tutoring children in small numbers. “I try to put myself in their position. Sometimes, they get three students in one week. But I think it’s our duty to make them feel welcome.’'

School social worker David Kucej picks up where Kathleen Vermillion’s job leaves off. When the attendance keeper can’t track down a student who has stopped showing up for school, Kucej sees what he can find out. Sometimes he locates the student 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.

Kucej has been known to drive sick children home when their parents can’t be reached because they have no phone and to bring parents with no means of transportation to school to enroll their children. Once he even volunteered to be a guardian for a child whose mother was a recovering drug addict and prostitute.

The families Kucej tracks move for any number of reasons: They can’t find decent housing, or they can’t afford their rent and heating bills, or they simply tire of living in tight quarters with others. “People are moving out of crack houses constantly,’' he says. “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 Jimmel over the din of the children wedged onto the crowded benches in the cafeteria. But when asked why he moved from Chicago to Milwaukee, it sounds like he says because his mom was “sick and tired of the shooting.’' His father, he says, is in Minnesota.

So far, Jimmel doesn’t like it here. Why? “Because those boys are messing with me.’'

Michele Mushall, who teaches Cooper’s half-day kindergarten class, 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 feeling of a sinking ship. Mushall started with 12 children in her morning class but eventually reached a high of 27. That number has slacked off slightly to 25, but few students remain from the original group.

“The kids tend not to bond or have friendships,’' she says. “They don’t know if the person sitting next to them is going to be there tomorrow. During playtime, 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.’'

Student absence is also a problem, the kindergarten teacher complains. “A lot are absent once or twice a week,’' she says.

The transient nature of the student population disturbs Mushall. “I feel a sadness when I lose kids,’' she says. “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. Their exchange is good-natured. Later during the break, Jimmel wanders, lingering on the edge of groups of children who are tossing balls, jumping rope, shooting baskets. Sometimes, he worms his way into their circle enough to get a turn, but he never quite fits 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.

He is still smiling as the last hour of the school day begins, but he’s not paying much attention. While the other children begin to discuss a current-events publication Belland has passed out, Jimmel and one of the boys who were “messing’’ with him earlier wrangle over a bag of crayons. 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,’' she says, “the kids get 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 berserk in school,’' she recalls. “He had to be restrained by school personnel; he was screaming, crying, smashing things.’' The parent had called the school, the counselor says, and asked that the boy not be told it was his last day.

When school lets out, 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. They are waiting for someone to tell them which bus is his. The spark in Jimmel’s eyes has been replaced by vulnerability; the restlessness and bravado are gone. For the first time, he looks lost.

“The ones I see [move] from one dangerous environment to another,’' says Irene Panagopolous, a psychologist who works at Cooper part time. There is the child who witnessed a shooting at a previous school, and the one whose mother is in a drug-treatment facility; the mother was going to regain custody of the child, but when she was discovered to be infected with the AIDS virus, the youngster was sent to live with relatives.

“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.’'

Panagopolous sees one little boy whose father was shot. The boy is traumatized by images of him.

Jimmel arrives for his second day at Cooper, as he did on the first, with no lunch or lunch money. Belland sends him to the office to pick up the form his mother will need to fill out to qualify for free meals. Woznicki, the school secretary, tells Jimmel that today they will order him a peanut-butter sandwich. He grimaces, his face shrouded in the hood of his gray sweat shirt.

“Take your hood off now,’' Woznicki chides. Jimmel unrolls it, but only partway.

New students can pay dearly for appearing vulnerable. “One kid, within two weeks, got beat up five times,’' says 4th grade teacher Richard Klejsmit. “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.’'

With so many students at Cooper coming and going, you’d think that those who know what it’s like to be new would be sympathetic, but that is not necessarily true, Klejsmit says. “It almost makes them more defensive.’'

Klejsmit, who is getting ready to retire after nearly 30 years at Cooper, has lost a third of the class he started with back in September. Nine students have left within the past three months alone; only four have been replaced. “All you can do is basically continue exactly what you are doing,’' he says. “You really can’t go back and repeat everything. 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 than usual this year. As a result, his students are argumentative and difficult to control. “Substitutes,’' Klejsmit says, “have refused to come back.’'

Yesterday, Belland sat Jimmel in the seat of a student who was absent. Today, that student is back, so Belland puts Jimmel in the empty seat of another absent student in the back of the room. He spends more time this morning trying to follow the work sheets Belland hands out. He gets some help from his seatmate but loses his concentration easily.

When the class is asked to draw pictures of opposites and hold them up, Jimmel keeps his paper on his desk. A few times, he actually gets up and walks around the room unnoticed by Belland. During one of these jaunts, he lifts a book off a nearby table and leafs through it.

Later, during a lesson on telling time, he raises his hand for the first 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 problems for Beverly O’Hara, the 5th grade teacher. A fan of cooperative learning, O’Hara has coached her students and organized her room in a way she hopes will encourage problem solving and collaboration. As a result, she says, her students are accepting, “lenient’’ of new kids. “They bend over backward to work things out,’' she explains, “because that’s what we stress.’' She intervenes only if her students can’t work a problem out among themselves.

While the arrangement may make the transition a little less bumpy for new students, it also poses some difficulties. “We’ve spent a whole year talking about how to work together and cooperate,’' O’Hara says, “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 also uses portfolios to follow and evaluate her students’ progress. All year, children store samples of their seatwork, favorite projects, and reference materials in various folders. Taken as a whole, the portfolio can offer a valuable picture of a student’s performance.

When new kids arrive, however, they have no idea what the other students are doing. Until kids get up to speed on the portfolios, she says, “they don’t feel like they are part of the room no matter what you do.’' Filling them in is time-consuming, O’Hara admits. “You have to rely on kids to help set up other kids.’'

O’Hara points to a stack of portfolio folders that students who moved on 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,’' she says. “If you send them to another school, they may get trashed.’'

It is all very discouraging, and O’Hara grows even more downcast as she recounts a few personal stories. She recalls one little girl whose family moved away so her father could take over her grandfather’s business. “She was telling us how much she was going to miss her two new friends,’' O’Hara says. “She had started in September and left at 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.’'

It’s lunchtime, and Belland, seated in the teachers’ lounge, says she thinks things are going better for Jimmel today. “I gave him his books, and he put his name in [them],’' she explains. “And I sat him with a boy I thought he could work with.’' Belland had been worried that Jimmel couldn’t read, but when she called on him this morning, “he read out loud,’' she says. “He read a sentence and filled in a blank.’'

Some new students, Belland says, don’t want to be called on to read aloud because they can’t read, and it embarrasses them. Jimmel’s initial unresponsiveness is not unusual. “Sometimes, they don’t work right away,’' Belland notes. “They spend the first couple of days looking around the room and seeing what people are doing.’'

One of Roberta Wittig’s 3rd graders attended three other schools this year before he arrived in her classroom in March. Since he’s been at Cooper, his family has moved three times. He was found to have a learning disability but has not received any special attention because he’s been absent so much. “They limit those placements,’' Wittig says. “They don’t want to give them to children who are only here part time. He doesn’t come enough, and, when he does, he doesn’t get the attention he needs.’'

One 3rd grader who arrived at Cooper in October hadn’t attended any school in a year and a half. He was so far behind that he didn’t even know the alphabet. He has been spending time each day with mathematics and reading resource teachers and working with a peer tutor.

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

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

It is not unusual for a child to offer clues that they may be moving, says 4th grade teacher Sheila King. “But you can’t always go by what kids say,’' she adds.

King prepares her own homework materials and encourages children to use the library because she knows that classroom books she sends home may be lost in the moving shuffle. “I’ve had to change my way of teaching just to hang onto books,’' she says.

“There’s no sense of community,’' 3rd grade teacher Patrick Kelly laments. “This is just one more stop along their way.’'

Another teacher, who asks not to be identified, says she does everything she can to make the stop the best possible experience for the children. She believes that enhancing students’ self-esteem and their personal relationships and encouraging an acceptance of other cultures helps children from different backgrounds feel at home.

“I can’t look at mobility, class status, male or female, race, special education,’' she says. “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.’'

Four mothers sip coffee at a school breakfast for parent volunteers. They all have 4th graders who have been at Cooper since kindergarten. They also are on the board of the Cooper parent-teacher organization and attend activities at the school regularly. Often they are the only parents in attendance. The high rate of student turnover, they say, is one factor that makes it hard to sign up parent volunteers or attract parents to school programs.

Teacher Sue Griffin, who works with learning-disabled children and is also on the PTO board, says student mobility is just part of the problem. Many parents, she points out, live on the other side of town and find it hard to get to the school. Whatever the causes, the lack of parental involvement frustrates her. “I have kids I’ve seen for two or three years,’' she says, “and I’ve never met their parents.’'

Although all the teachers at Cooper are touched in some way by the high rate of student mobility, it’s not something they talk to parents about. Most believe that when families decide to move in search of a better life, it is futile, even ill-advised, to interfere. “I have only said that I feel bad the child is leaving, and I hope it works out,’' 1st grade teacher Rose Haas says. “I think a lot of families are genuinely sad, but they want to get out of the city.’'

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

Panagopolous, the school psychologist, believes most parents are unaware how the constant moving hurts their children. “Typically, they don’t know why the child is behind,’' she says. “They just want some kind of help.’'

“For the most part, these are parents you never get to talk to anyway,’' Wittig says. “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.’'

A call is placed to the telephone number that Jimmel gave the school when he enrolled. The woman who answers the phone says she is a friend of the boy’s mother. She tells the caller to phone back at a specific time; she will make sure Jimmel’s mother is there to take the call. The appointed time comes, the call is placed, and no one answers.

This scenario is played out again 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, the phone has been disconnected.

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as Here Today, Gone Tomorrow