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Illinois School Board Journal
March/April 2005

Student mobility packs problems

by Linda Dawson

Linda Dawson is IASB director of editorial services and Journal editor.

Kathy Crum knows that with the first cold snap of the season she can expect faces to change in a number of classrooms. The same holds true on the first of the month just about any month.

Crum, principal at Elizabeth Graham Elementary School in Springfield School District 186, watches as students ebb and flow in and out of her K-5 building. Graham's student mobility rate sits at 28.7 percent, according to state report card data for 2003-04. But Crum knows that's an improvement over the nearly 50 percent mobility rate the school experienced when she became principal there six years ago.

At that point, she said, if you had a class of 20, 10 students would be consistent and the other 10 would rotate. Now that the rate has abated slightly, the major changes in student population come with changes of the calendar, when people are unable to make the next rent payment, or when a big utility bill is due.

While some districts might have seen changes that first week in January following holiday break, Crum's new influx came a week later. Graham Elementary, which has gone to year-round status, began its first session of 2005 on January 10 and with it came six new students in two days.

Those six students, just like mobile students in other districts, pack problems for teachers and schools on the receiving end, as well for the students themselves. One of the biggest concerns on both sides is the effect this mobility has on how these students then achieve in the classroom.

So how widespread is the problem of student mobility? And how do teachers and staff cope with a constant shuffling of students, either in and out of the district or from building to building within the same district? Can board policies at the district level help alleviate student mobility problems at the building level?

Shuffling statewide

Crum and Graham Elementary are certainly not alone. At another Springfield school, Harvard Park, the student mobility rate is 35.1 percent. There, Principal Kerry Purcell says the "revolving door" nature of some classrooms disrupts daily routines as well as creating mountains of extra paperwork and traffic in and out of the school secretary's office.

Both of these schools are above average on the mobility scale. Springfield District 186 reports an overall mobility rate of 24.4 percent among its enrollment of 14,425. Statewide, with 2,060,048 students, Illinois has a student mobility rate of 23.6 percent.

But consider that some districts some with five or fewer buildings, others with more than 25 buildings have very low mobility rates: North suburban Winnetka School District 36, 3 percent mobility and Wilmette School District 39, 3.2 percent; Germantown Hills School District 69 near Peoria, 6.7 percent; Wabash Community Unit School District 348 in Mt. Carmel and Indian Prairie Community Unit School District 204, Naperville, both 8.4 percent.

In addition to low mobility rates, however, the one thing these districts have in common is a low poverty rate, based on the percent of students in their free and reduced lunch programs. Except for Wabash CUSD 348, which reports a student poverty level of 27.8 percent (still well under the state average of 39 percent), the other four have poverty rates no higher than 6.6 percent (Germantown Hills).

The same is not true for Graham, Harvard Park and Springfield as a district. While District 186 has a poverty rate of 56.7 percent, the rate at Graham is 75.9 percent. At Harvard Park it's even higher: 85.6 percent.

But poverty in and of itself does not necessarily correlate to high student mobility.

Given that Principal Crum can point to students moving in and out of Graham Elementary with the monthly rent being due, it's no surprise that poverty plays a key role in student mobility. The inability to make a rent payment or come up with enough cash when the heating bill comes due may be more likely to occur in families where the students qualify for free and reduced meals.

Jason Schachter, writing for the U.S. Census Bureau 2001 report "Geographical Mobility: Population Characteristics," states that one-third of people who lived in rental housing in March 2000 moved during the preceding year, compared with only one in 11 who owned their home. "Those with income below the poverty level were more likely to have moved (28 percent) than those with income 150 percent above the poverty level or higher (14 percent)," he wrote.

Housing is key

While some mobility can be traced to the inability to pay the rent, a bigger underlying problem may be the availability of affordable housing, either to rent or own.

In "The affordable housing crisis: Residential mobility of poor families and school mobility of poor children," published in the Journal of Negro Education (Winter 2003), Sheila Crowley writes that "frequent moves, moves determined by external forces rather than parental choice, and moves that do not result in significant housing improvements will be detrimental to children."

Crowley, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, cites testimony from a U.S. House of Representatives' Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity that the number of rental units available to extremely low-income households fell by 14 percent between 1991 and 1999. She then offers information from a study she did with Cushing N. Dolbeare, NLIHC founder and chairman emeritus, showing "the federal investment in direct housing assistance for low-income people, primarily through the rental housing market, has fallen from a high of $80 billion in 1978 to $27.5 billion in 2002."

That, they say, contributed directly to increased rates of homelessness and a shrinking affordable housing market in the 1980s and 1990s. While new programs seeking to offer home ownership opportunities to low-income groups have been expanded, such programs often still are out of reach of many of the nation's poorest families, who are at the highest risk for mobility.

Other problems

Housing is a problem that school boards might help address by working with their communities to identify areas of need, but housing is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to mobility problems.

As far as students are concerned, the bigger problems involve placement, learning new buildings and routines, making new friends and adjusting to a curriculum that may be at a different point than their previous school.

Children transferring schools often do so with little warning to either their old school or their new school. If the transfer is within the district, the paperwork may be slightly quicker than with a transfer from a different district. But according to Principal Crum in Springfield, some parents try to "pull a fast one" with transfers especially if a child has been held back or they didn't agree with a grade placement at a previous school.

"As new kids come in, we have to diagnose where they should be placed," she said. "It might take up to two weeks to get records from the previous school."

While two weeks of instruction may not seem critical to some adults, that can represent lost learning time if students are incorrectly placed whether it's into a classroom teaching material they have already covered, or into a classroom that's so far ahead, they're lost. And the two-week lag time is even more critical for those with Individual Education Plans for special education.

"A lot of those who are mobile have lost time anyway," Crum said. And if they have moved more than once, the problems of lost learning time multiply.

Springfield 186 has addressed this problem by coordinating curriculum throughout the district. That means a third-grader at Graham transferring to Harvard Park should find approximately the same concepts being taught in the new school at about the same time.

But even having similar curriculum does not lessen the transitions of making new friends, navigating a new building and learning a new set of class rules and procedures.

For that reason, Crum began a monthly orientation session for all new students and their parents. This session walks them through those new rules as well as their new building to help ease the transition as well as cut down on behavior problems that can result when a child doesn't know the school's rules and expectations.

Reaching out

While the monthly orientation helps, Crum says additional services for parents also can help lower mobility rates. When parents come for orientation, she tries to give them as much information as she can, knowing that this may be the only chance to reach out to them.

Crum brings out the district map and shows parents exactly where Graham's attendance center boundaries are. If they need to move again, she encourages them to relocate within those boundaries so that their child can remain at Graham. She also points out that a student can attend Graham while living in another attendance area, but the parents will need to provide transportation for their child.

Adopting an open enrollment policy is a possibility for districts with serious mobility problems. Another is creation of magnet schools, where children apply to attend no matter where they live in the district. The difference between the two is often tied to who provides transportation. District transportation costs will rise if multiple routes have to serve the same neighborhoods.

According to Donald Waldrip, former superintendent of schools in Cincinnati, Ohio, "when a parent chooses a school for his or her young child, that school is more likely to succeed for that child than would one to which that child was assigned." Waldrip's remarks are part of "A Brief History of Magnet Schools" that appears on the Magnet Schools of America Web site.

According to the Education Commission of the States, magnet schools are the least controversial of any of the school choice options, followed by open enrollment policies, charter schools, tax credits and deductions, and vouchers.

School choice, however, is a cornerstone of the No Child Left Behind Act, which allows parents to transfer their students from schools "in need of improvement" to higher performing schools within their district, or even another district if the receiving district will accept them. Mobility through such transfers, because they are relatively new, has not as yet been researched to determine if the effects of such moves are beneficial to students.

In "Limiting Mobility and Improving Student Achievement," Len Biernat, a law professor with Hamline School of Law, and Christine Jax, former commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Children, Families and Learning, studied mobility in Minneapolis schools. They found moves that benefit a child better living conditions, a better school or a better learning environment may help rather than hinder a child's education.

"Mobility alone is not a barrier to academic success as demonstrated by the impact of frequent moves in the military," they wrote, "which found little impact of mobility on reading achievement scores of the children of enlisted military personnel."

Their study also found that "multiple moves is a significant predictor of test performance, although its contribution was small relative to other factors such as race, free lunch status, attendance, limited English spoken at home, not living with both parents and birth in one of eight states from which migrants to Minneapolis come."

Not surprisingly, they also point to attendance as one of the strongest predictors of academic performance. "Clearly, students cannot be expected to score well on tests when they are not in school a substantial amount of time," Biernat and Jax wrote.

They speculated that even though states have compulsory attendance laws, it would be difficult to establish any rules or remedies that would keep parents from moving their children during the school year. "It is doubtful that the state could force a family to stay in one location during an academic year," they wrote, even though it might be more beneficial for the child to remain in one school for the entire school year.

Action steps

So where does that leave a local school board in terms of strategy and policies dealing with student mobility?

In "The causes and consequences of student mobility," Russell Rumberger, writing for the Journal of Negro Education in 2003, offers strategy lists for school districts, as well as for students and families. What does he consider the most effective strategy? Improvement of the overall quality of every school so that parents want their child to remain in the same facility. Policies that support implementing School Improvement Plans, required by state law, may go a long way toward this end.

Rumberger also urges school districts to:

In addition, districts can look at the costs of transportation to allow students to remain at a school even if they move outside its attendance boundaries.

Districts may not be able to address all the root causes of mobility poverty, housing availability and family crisis but their policies and resulting administrative procedures may work toward transitions that are the least disruptive, both to the students and their schools.

Redistricting: The other mobility factor

School districts faced with increasing or declining enrollments may need to make school attendance boundary changes that result in building changes for some students. The impact of this type of mobility is not as readily discernable as the student mobility discussed here.

Research associated with student mobility and how it affects student achievement has focused on moves made by families within the academic year. This mobility has been accompanied by a change of physical address, family crisis, economic instability or a combination of those factors. In addition, such mobility results in just one student the student who moves being new to a classroom.

In the case of redistricting, entire groups or neighborhoods of students may be reassigned to a different school. These school changes are usually effective for the next school year, not the next day or the next week.

When schools redistrict, students and their families are informed of the changes well in advance, which allows time for development of orientation programs and new-student materials.

Redistricting may be looked at as a form of forced student mobility, and districts may want to examine their policies involving such movement to minimize the disruption to the least number of students. However, until researchers find a way to quantify such movement, the actual disruption to the learning process is unknown.

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