All kinds of reasons

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Pointing to the letter posted on her wall, Principal Laura Williams of Harvard Elementary says it was written by a former student. The student and his cousin John lived in the same apartment building, but the student’s family was evicted when they couldn’t pay the rent. “This is only one example of why schools lose their students,” says Williams. “With every transfer, there’s a different story.”

Most involve housing, according to a recent report on mobility by the Center for School Improvement at the University of Chicago and the Chicago Panel on School Policy. Referring to a 1994 survey of 6th- and 8th-graders, the report said 60 percent of students who transfer schools do so because their families moved. Some had been evicted, others needed more affordable housing, and still others had moved up to a better neighborhood. In some cases, a parent had landed a job in a different location.

The remaining 40 percent of transfer students gave reasons that were connected in some way to the school they left. Of those, the most frequently cited was “trouble with students in the old school.” (See chart.)

However, principals and teachers say some reasons have more to do with parents than with students.

“I had one parent tell me he was transferring his child because he didn’t like black people—he was African,” recalls Kara Staggs, a lst-grade teacher at Swift Elementary. “I’ve also had parents pull their children out because I tell them their child needs special education. So they transfer them to another school. And when the next teacher also recommends it, that child will move again.”

Paula Hudson, a 4th-grade teacher at Swift, says she sees her kids leave because of custody issues. “Mom moves with grandma; kids are placed with a relative; parents get divorced,” she says, adding, “I guess in those cases, it can’t be helped.”

And Armstrong Elementary Principal Arline Hersh says she loses students when she cracks down on parents. “If a child is not in this school, we call the parents,” Hersh says firmly. “We don’t use machines; we call. I have threatened to take parents to court because they don’t send their child to school. So how do they respond? They snatch them out.”