School & District Management

Moving Targets

By Linda Jacobson — April 04, 2001 16 min read
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Jo Ann Isken first noticed the problem at Jefferson Elementary School when she was going through a reorganization process. Every time the Los Angeles-area principal made classroom assignments, some classes would become overcrowded, others would thin out, and she’d have to start all over again.

Researchers and educators say the need to address the problems associated with student mobility has never been greater.

Soon, she realized that the constant fluctuation was due to factors outside the walls of her school: Many of the students who began the year at Jefferson were gone, replaced by new faces.

“When we started looking at it, it was like peeling back an onion,” Isken says. “We knew we were going to have to structure the school to be flexible.”

So Isken and her staff hit the issue of student mobility head-on, by preparing “welcoming packets” that were ready to go as soon as a new pupil walked in the door, by posting important procedures on all the classroom walls, and by sitting down with children and their parents to compile family “histories.”

“Often, we found large gaps in schooling—students who had changed schools five times,” the principal says.

The school, part of the six-school, 7,000-student Lennox district not far from the runways of the Los Angeles International Airport, also enhanced its counseling program and even applied for counseling grants to give students the one-on-one attention many of them needed.

That was almost 10 years ago. Now Isken is the principal at Moffett Elementary School, about three blocks away from Jefferson. Once again, she’s noticing the same enrollment patterns and is trying to institute some of the same practices.

While students always come and go during the school year—particularly in urban areas—the problem, many experts say, is that for too long educators have accepted the notion that there is little they can do about it.

“It’s almost as if we say, ‘Well, we’re Americans, so we take this for granted,’” says Elizabeth E. Hinz, the director of planning and policy for the 49,000-student Minneapolis school system, where she helped initiate a study on mobility, as well as efforts to reduce it.

But research findings, and the experiences of school administrators, point to a variety of specific— and often simple—measures that schools can take to both discourage families from transferring their children during the academic year and ease the transition for children who have just been through the process.

And now, with growing demands to hold schools and teachers more accountable for student performance, researchers and educators say the need to address the problems associated with student mobility has never been greater.

“That’s on the minds of a lot of people,” says Sandra Z. Paik, the director of education programs at the Washington-based Poverty and Race Research Action Council, a nonprofit advocacy group that sponsored a conference on mobility last summer. “You can’t assess how a school is doing based on student-achievement scores of students who have not received the benefit of [the school’s] curriculum.”

Students at Risk

Studies show that school performance suffers for children who change schools often for reasons other than the normal progression from one level of schooling to the next.

A 1993 study by Dr. David Wood, who at the time was a professor of pediatrics at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, found that children who had changed schools at least six times between 1st and 12th grade were 35 percent more likely to fail a grade than children who didn’t move or had just moved a couple of times during that period.

Children who had changed schools at least six times between 1st and 12th grade were 35 percent more likely to fail a grade than children who didn’t move.

His study, which appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association, isolated mobility from other risk factors, such as poverty, or living in a single-parent home, and found that frequent moving alone was an “important predictor” of a child’s academic performance.

A 1995 study by David Kerbow, a research associate at the University of Chicago’s Center for School Improvement, found that mobile students in that city, who tend to be from low-income families, were an average of four months behind their more stable classmates on standardized tests by 4th grade. By the 6th grade, students who were highly mobile during elementary school lagged behind their classmates by as much as a full year.

And as with students who are held back a grade, those who often change schools are at greater risk of dropping out, researchers say.

By analyzing data from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that students who had changed schools once during their high school years were less likely to graduate than those who remained in the same high school.

“I don’t think mobility has been considered as a risk factor as much as it should be,” says Russell W. Rumberger, a professor of education and one of the authors of the study, which appeared in the American Journal of Education in 1998.

While the effects of student mobility might be worse for children living in poor, highly transient communities, experts suggest that being uprooted from friends and familiar surroundings can leave emotional scars on children even if they live in more stable, middle-class families.

“It’s almost like grieving,” says Mark Kuranz, a guidance counselor at J.I. Case High School in Racine, Wis., and the president of the American School Counselor Association, based in Alexandria, Va. “And the thing that produces the most anxiety is, ‘What am I going to do during lunch?’ ”

Frequent school changes can take their toll on children in a number of ways. They can become withdrawn or, at the other extreme, overly talkative and aggressive. Others tend to cling to adults, Isken says.

A 1991 report from the National Association of School Psychologists, called “Kids on the Move: Meeting Their Needs,” said that children who change schools “need as few as six or as many as 18 months to regain a sense of equilibrium, security, and control.”

Children can also appear to be distracted and forgetful about items such as homework or permission slips, adds Isken, who has been a principal for 15 of her 26 years in education. That is usually because “home is not an organized place,” she says. “There’s nowhere to put things.”

Children change schools for a variety of reasons. Families move because of parents’ changes in employment, or to get a nicer house. But some families are forced to move because they can’t pay their rent, or because they’ve been living temporarily with friends or relatives.

Divorce and child- custody issues are common causes of student mobility. But the problem is probably the most concentrated among homeless children, children in the foster- care system, and children of migrant workers.

At the secondary school level, student mobility is often initiated by students themselves who wish to change schools, according to Rumberger’s research.

Interest Extends Beyond Schools

Because student mobility is usually tied to other factors within a community—such as the supply of affordable housing—interest in the subject as well as studies on the topic come from a variety of sources, not just from education researchers.

For example, in 1995, Roger D. Colton of Belmont, Mass., from the economics consulting group of Fisher, Sheehan, and Colton, wrote a paper that showed the link between high energy bills and frequent school moves in Missouri.

‘I don’t think mobility has been considered as a risk factor as much as it should be.’

Russell W. Rumberger,
Professor of education ,
University of California, Santa Barbara

By surveying 813 low-income families in that state, Colton found that among those described as “frequently mobile,” unaffordable energy bills were often listed as a very important factor in the families’ most recent move. Colton concluded that making utility costs more affordable for poorer families would reduce student mobility.

“Rather than addressing the symptom of the problem by committing ever-increasing dollars to the education system, public policy would be well-served by seeking to break the circle of causation that leads to the mobility, and thus the education problem in the first instance,” Colton argued in his study.

In Minneapolis, Hennepin County planners, school officials, and a nonprofit group that promotes affordable housing were among those who joined together to produce a 1998 research report called “The Kids Mobility Project.” The researchers found that among elementary school students, there was a relationship between frequent moves and poor reading performance.

Children who had moved at least three times during their elementary years had reading scores on nationally normed tests that averaged 20 points lower on a 99-point scale than those of children who had not moved.

What’s surprising about the sample in Minneapolis, however, is that very few of those residential moves actually resulted in the students’ switching schools. Still, the effect on achievement was clear.

“That was really dramatic,” says Hinz of the Minneapolis school district. Hinz, who initiated the mobility project, adds that the study suggests that even if children are not leaving the classroom, teachers and administrators should be aware when students’ addresses might be changing. They might have the same problems adjusting and concentrating on schoolwork as children who are actually new to the school.

Just as research on mobility has come from some unexpected groups, so can some of the efforts to reduce it.

For example, David B. Schuler, a landlord in Rochester, N.Y., began working in the late 1980s with his local apartment owners’ association to discourage families from moving during the school year. A study Schuler conducted found that the group’s efforts had helped cut mobility in the Rochester district’s elementary schools by 38 percent in just a year.

“If we just told the parents that this would hurt their child, we got a massive response,” says Schuler. Not just landlords, but also banking institutions, welfare agencies, and others in the community can help reduce mobility, he believes.

Deborah Stein, the director for policy and advocacy at the Washington-based National Association for Child Advocates, agrees.

“There are a lot of broader policy solutions,” says Stein. One of the “two messages in the public-policy arena these days that really carry political weight,” she argues, is getting children ready for school and helping them succeed.

The other, she says, is helping working families. Under the 1996 federal welfare-reform law, Stein says, states have a lot of flexibility, for example, to offer short- term aid or one-time payments to families that are close to the poverty line. The money can be used for a rent payment, thereby helping the family avoid an eviction and probably a school transfer.

Stein adds that the educational impact of mobility should be communicated to other professionals who work with poor families.

‘Move Strategically’

Still, schools themselves can take some specific and practical steps if they are facing high student turnover.

“We can’t tell people not to move,” says Barbara Buell, the executive director of the Chicago Panel on School Policy, an advocacy group that initiated “Staying Put,” an information campaign to combat mobility in that city. “We can say to them, however, ‘Move strategically, and think about when you’re going to take your kids out of school.’”

Children, for example, are encouraged to compile what Buell calls a “my best yet” folder. Based on the idea of a portfolio assessment, students who might be moving can tuck away their best work and take it with them to show their new teachers.

Schools are urged to conduct “exit interviews,” meaning that when a parent is about to transfer a child out of a school, the principal, or some other administrator, sits down with family members and asks them why they are leaving and whether they can postpone the change, preferably until the end of the school year.

Amanda Rivera, the principal of Ames Middle School in Chicago, is one administrator who has taken that advice to heart.

“When parents say they want to transfer, we make sure they know they have the option to stay, and we encourage them to stay,” Rivera says.

Schools can also advise parents or guardians to ask for copies of their children’s school records so they can provide the new school with important documents when they show up for registration.

While records are supposed to follow the child to his or her new school, experts say the mishandling and red tape involved in getting vital educational information to the right person can often make a troubling experience for a child even worse—especially if that child has special needs.

“The reality is that the bureaucracy moves slowly,” Buell says.

Buell also suggests that teachers in schools with high turnover occasionally teach lessons from the perspective of a new student, or talk about how a child who didn’t move away might feel about losing a friend.

She acknowledges that even though the “Staying Put” materials were distributed to the district more than a year ago, she’s not sure how widely they are being used in the Chicago schools. She has heard from individual principals, though, who have found the suggestions to be useful. Experts, in fact, note that aggressive efforts to do something to reduce student mobility usually don’t go much higher than an individual principal.

Educators can also institute routines and programs that make their schools more welcoming to new students. Many schools, particularly elementary schools, pair new pupils with “buddies” who can show them around for a few days. It’s helpful, says Kuranz of the American School Counselor Association, if the youngster guiding the new student has also changed schools in the past.

It’s also important, he adds, to quickly find out what new students’ interests are and try to find ways for them to plug in to school activities.

Other schools have been fortunate enough to be able to assign a staff person to work just with new families, especially if the schools receive a lot of immigrant and non-English-speaking students. And some schools have even set up special “transitional” classes for new students to attend temporarily until they are better acquainted with their new surroundings.

In Minneapolis, the outcome of the mobility project was a renewed emphasis on the importance of school attendance, in the hope that if parents realized how necessary it was for their children to be in school, they might reconsider their plans.

The authors of the mobility report, which was completed in 1998, also stressed the value of a standardized curriculum for students who are bouncing around within a district.

“The district needs to continue efforts to implement a core district curriculum and consistent standards, so that when students move, they easily understand what is expected of them in their new school,” the report advised.

Still, every school transfer is likely to put a child further behind, even if schools in a district are at roughly the same place in the curriculum, says Kerbow of the University of Chicago. For that reason, he says, schools should be ready to provide all new students with extra academic help.

Whatever approach teachers and administrators decide to take, Buell emphasizes that schools should have a menu of strategies. For example, a buddy or “peer helper” program by itself may not be enough for a child who has moved repeatedly throughout the school year and is feeling angry.

Escaping a ‘Bad Situation’

If a student is planning to transfer not because of a residential move but because of a problem at the school itself, researchers say educators should try to intervene and perhaps resolve the problem that is prompting the student to want to leave.

In his 1999 study on mobility in California, which focused on a sample of more than 1,100 secondary school students, Rumberger found that many school transfers were initiated by students. Parents surveyed listed social isolation and feeling unsafe at school as some of the reasons the adolescents wanted to change.

And in Chicago, Kerbow’s research revealed that 40 percent of the school transfers at the elementary level were due to reasons other than a residential move.

Building strong relationships with children and parents can be
the greatest prevention against the emotional and academic costs of high mobility.

Rivera, from Ames Middle School in Chicago, observes that principals probably won’t know why a child is leaving unless they ask. Of course, sometimes teachers or administrators don’t know that a school transfer is in the works.

“They’ll come in the day of the move, and then they won’t come in again, ever,” says Isken, the principal at California’s Moffett Elementary School.

While researchers agree that sometimes starting over in a new environment can be positive for a child, more often than not students are trying to “escape a bad situation rather than to actively seek a better situation,” Rumberger wrote.

When the problem is brought to an administrator’s attention, it can sometimes be alleviated, and the transfer can be avoided.

Studies show that a lot of mobility takes place within a district. For that reason, experts say, it’s wise to first explore the possibility that a child won’t have to change schools, even if he or she moves out of the attendance area.

For example, a program called KIDZConnection, which serves homeless children in the 15,000-student Victoria, Texas, school district, uses the motto “One Child, One School, One Year,” and provides transportation to those students to make the slogan a reality.

Even though transportation services cannot be provided in other cases, Gail V. Brocklebank, a community specialist for the Victoria district, said it’s the district’s philosophy to keep a child in his or her school after a move, if at all possible.

Parents in Chicago, as Rivera points out, have the option of keeping their children in the same school for the remainder of the academic year if their new addresses are within a five-mile radius of the school.

But even though that is the policy of the 432,000-student Chicago system—and might be similar to the policies of many other districts—it’s not always advertised, Kerbow found.

“There is actually a disincentive to keep highly mobile students in the classroom,” because they are not likely to raise a school’s test scores for accountability purposes, Kerbow says.

It’s for that reason that Isken, in the Lennox district, says she is more concerned about such students than ever before. Because resources are limited, she’s worried that many children in her overwhelmingly Hispanic district will not get the help they need if they skip from school to school.

At the same time, she adds, building strong relationships with children and parents can be the greatest prevention against the emotional and academic costs of high mobility.

“They will try to keep their kids in this school,” Isken says, “even if they move five or six times.”

The Research section is underwritten by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 2001 edition of Education Week as Moving Targets


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