Kids, schools suffer from revolving door

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As any principal or teacher will tell you, there’s a whole lot of moving going on in many Chicago public schools. Thousands of children change schools every year—often in the middle of the school year—putting themselves at greater risk of failure and detracting from their classmates’ education.

Until recently, the problem was viewed much like the weather: Educators complained about it but felt they couldn’t do anything about it.

But that’s beginning to change. A number of schools, including those in the Orr School Network and Spry Elementary in Little Village, have taken steps to deter transfers or limit the damage. Also, the central administration is adopting a number of recommendations made in a new study that, for the first time, brought the problem into sharp focus and raised its profile.

The study by the Center for School Improvement at the University of Chicago and the Chicago Panel on School Policy found that only two in five Chicago students stay in the same school from lst through 6th grade, not counting scheduled transitions from, say, a K-5 school to a middle school.

Some of the students who switch schools transfer four, five or six times by 6th grade, according to a separate student survey conducted by the Consortium on Chicago School Research. (See chart.) That same survey indicates that a large number of transfers occur during the school year—48 percent of a sample of 6th-graders said that the last time they switched schools, it was during the school year.

Viewed from the schools’ perspective, the high rate of transfers means that a typical classroom gets an average of five new students each year, according to the study by the Center for School Improvement and the Chicago Panel. And just 15 percent of elementary schools retain a solid core of students—85 percent of their total enrollment—from year to year.

“Mobility in Chicago is not an isolated problem; it’s a citywide problem,” says David Kerbow, the primary investigator for the study.

Toni Wagner, a research scientist at the Illinois State Board of Education, concurs. With the exception of some school districts with children of Air Force personnel or migrant workers, no other area suffers the mobility problems that Chicago does, she says.

And while Chicago is beginning to act on this data, Rochester, N.Y., remains the leader in the mobility fight. Eight years ago, the apartment owners association of Rochester launched programs that cut the school district’s mobility rate by 38 percent.

Vicious cycle

For many transfer students, mobility is a vicious cycle: They’re dropped into lessons that their previous school didn’t prepare them for; in another Consortium survey, teachers said that half of their new students did not have the background to join the class at the level being taught. Starting out behind in strange territory, many transfer students act out, making learning still harder.

“They don’t get a chance to bond with their teacher or make friends before they are bounced to another school,” says Arline Hersh, principal of Armstrong Elementary School, which averages 10 new students a month. “They have to learn a different classroom culture each time. They have to learn their place in another pecking order.”

Hersh recalls one student who had three violent episodes the first two weeks he was at Armstrong, which is in West Ridge near the city’s northern limits. “He even threatened one child, who was afraid to say something. We called his previous school and found he was doing the same things there. This makes it difficult for the teacher and the other students.”

Emil DeJulio, principal at Swift Elementary School in Edgewater, tells a similar story: “We had a new student last year who was really nasty. She got into fights all the time. You couldn’t even look at her, and she’d start in on you. She had been bounced around a lot and she was only in the 5th grade.”

However, DeJulio says such children can be helped. “Our assistant principal, counselors and her teacher really worked with her and in three months, her negative behavior had been reduced. If she stays with us, she’ll have friends, relationships. She won’t have to prove how tough she is or show off. If she doesn’t stay with us, she’ll have to start all over again.”

In researching test scores, Kerbow found that by 4th grade, students who had switched schools were, on average, four months behind students who had stayed in the same school. And students who had moved four or more times were, by 6th grade, a full year behind.

Ripple effect

And as Hersh points out, transfer students have a ripple effect on their classmates. Even if they’re not disruptive, they can consume extra teacher time.

“Our [transfer] kids come in with very low academic skills,” says Hersh. “and our teachers have to spend a lot of time with them to bring them up to par.”

“Many times an influx of new students causes teachers to ‘flatten’ their curriculum,” says Kerbow. “That means teachers overlay their material to accommodate the increased variation in their students’ learning. This limits the amount of material students are exposed to, which affects stable students, too.”

Also, principals have long complained that transfer students make their schools look bad, too.

“My bright kids often move on to other schools, like magnet schools,” notes Hersh. “And then we get a set of new kids who are not doing so well. But we have to test them, and you can imagine what our scores look like. It’s not a true picture of what we’ve done with our students.”

Laura Williams, principal of Harvard Elementary in Englewood, expresses similar frustration: “I remember I once got a student who enrolled right before testing time. And I am to be held accountable for that child?”

However, Kerbow found that transfer students had lowered test scores in only 7 percent of all elementary schools. In two-thirds of elementary schools, transfer students had no impact on average school test scores because those who arrived were doing about the same as those who left.

In January, the School Reform Board’s Office of Accountability sent schools an analysis of their test scores from 1990 to 1995 that shows the performance of transfer students separate from that of their classmates. The analysis was conducted by the Chicago Public Schools’ research department with technical assistance from the Consortium on Chicago School Research. As Kerbow had found, the scores of mobile students had no consistent impact on schoolwide test scores.

Schools with increasing stability rates have been encouraged to apply for the board’s Exemplary Schools Program, which will give schools extra money to serve as models for other schools.

Publicity campaign

The School Board also is gearing up for a publicity campaign to inform parents about the harmful effects of mobility and to make sure they understand the board’s transfer and open enrollment policies. Both recommendations had been made by the Center for School Improvement and the Chicago Panel.

Under the transfer policy, children who move out of a school’s attendance boundary during the year can stay at that school until the end of the year so long as the parent provides transportation.

“Right now it’s up to the principal to let parents know they can keep their children in the school,” says Maribeth Vander Weele, director of investigations and the facilitator for a board task force created in November to work on mobility. “Parents don’t know what their rights are unless they are told, so we also plan on changing the transfer form, so that the transfer policy is right on it, letting parents know their rights.”

Beverly Tunney, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, says the policy “is not well known” among principals and that some are confused about what it means.

However, according to one North Side principal who asked not to be identified, some principals know very well what it means but manipulate it to “counsel out” students they don’t want.

Under the board’s open enrollment policy, students may choose a school outside their immediate attendance area, and low-income students may qualify for board-funded transportation. However, the school they choose must be within five miles of their home and have enough space to serve children in its attendance area as well as outsiders, and enrolling the child must not adversely affect the school’s racial balance.

In the meantime, Mary Sue Barrett, chief of staff to the board, also is working with the Chicagoland Apartment Owners Association to distribute notices warning tenants that mobility may be hazardous to their children’s education.

“We’d like to develop a flyer that can be given out when a tenant gets a lease,” says Barrett. “Our proposal is to do a real aggressive public education campaign, just like we did with our successful back-to-school campaign and are doing now with local school council elections.”

Untimely leases

Some school activists would like to see the association go further and promote a change in Chicago’s leasing dates. Currently, many leases expire April 30 (six weeks before school ends) or Oct. 30. (several weeks after school starts). Fred Hess, executive director of the Chicago Panel, and others have called for a June 30 expiration date.

“That’s when I see the biggest movement in my classroom—in October and in the spring, and unfortunately, that’s right around testing time,” says Paula Hudson, a teacher at Swift Elementary School in Edgewater.

Barrett says she asked the association about lease expirations and was told that they occur throughout the year, especially in low- and lower-middle-income areas.

“Usually small apartment owners have someone move out, take a month to fix the apartment up and then rent it out, so their lease dates keep changing,” she reports. “Only the large apartment owners can get an apartment into shape in one day and rent it out the next. Since there are large fluctuations on leases, we said, ‘OK, then at least help us educate our parents.'”

In Rochester, N.Y., whose school enrollment is less than 10 percent of Chicago’s, it was the apartment owners association that took action.

In 1988, association President David Shuler discovered that the local school near his apartment building had a mobility rate of 73 percent. When he asked the principal what affect that had on student achievement, she told him she didn’t know because no one had ever studied it.

“I couldn’t believe that no one had looked into this problem and there was no information on it,” says Shuler. “I wanted to know how this touched children.”

Shuler’s association looked for research and came up empty-handed; so it did its own study.

“We found that it seriously affected students academically,” says Shuler. So the association took action.

First, it sent letters to parents explaining the negative effects of mobility and offering to help them stay in their schools’ attendance boundaries if they had to move. The association either would mediate disputes with landlords or help the parents find new apartments nearby.

The first round of letters brought more than 85 requests; the association helped resolve the housing problems of 40 families and could have helped more if it had had more staff, says Shuler.

The association also got the agency that mails welfare checks to enclose notices stressing the importance of stability in school, and it persuaded the agency to send rent checks for welfare recipients directly to landlords. This removed the temptation for recipients to pocket a month’s rent and precipitously move out of their apartment.

Barrett says she is interested in taking a look at what Rochester has done. “We’d be very open to what has worked in other cities,” she says. “And what they’ve done that is key is creating partnerships with government agencies and landlords.”

Schools can act

Even individual schools can have an impact. For example, Spry Elementary School conducted a media blitz to educate parents about mobility and to let them know the school’s boundaries. Principal Mary Cavey credits the school’s previous principal, Carlos Aczoitia, now head of School and Community Relations, with identifying the problem and beginning the campaign.

“One big problem is families returning to Mexico for a few months and coming back,” says Cavey. “So the school counsels them on how harmful this is and suggests that they take vacations when school is out.”

Spry’s stability rate improved from 66 percent in 1991 to 77 percent in 1994.

Similarly, Cooper Elementary School in Pilsen is working to become a community center. “Ninety-eight percent of our parents are Hispanic, so we have programs that teach parents how to speak English, how to get their citizenship and how to get their GED in Spanish,” explains Principal Eduardo Cadavid. “We’ve had over 100 parents request information for all these courses.”

The school also serves as a liaison with community agencies such as the Pilsen Health Center, he says.

“Parents who move to the South-west Side ask if they can send their children back to us when they find that other schools don’t offer the same programs,” says Cadavid.

Between 1991 and 1994, Cooper’s stability rate rose from 60 percent to 80 percent. And by February of this school year, only 20 of some 830 students had left, he reports.

Peirce Elementary School in Edgewater was so attractive to one parent that when she became homeless and moved to a shelter more than two miles away, she got bus tokens for her children to commute to Peirce, reports Principal Janice Rosales. The family now is searching for housing inside Peirce’s attendance boundaries.

Easing the pain

No matter how attractive schools make themselves, however, there will always be some mobility. With that in mind, clusters of schools that see the same children circulating among them are working to provide a safety net.

Schools in two groups that received grants under the Chicago Annenberg Challenge—the Orr School Network and the Uptown Schools Network—are aligning their curricula.

“What that means is each school would teach a certain subject at a certain time,” explains Donald Schmitt, principal of Ryerson Elementary, which is one of 13 schools in the Orr network. “If a child transferred, that child wouldn’t miss out on a certain skill. There would be continuity. And the teacher would still be free to use his or her own style of teaching.”

From kindergarten through 9th grade, the curriculum will be broken into weeklong units of study that reflect the school system’s learning outcomes, says DePaul University education professor Barbara Radner, the network’s chief facilitator.

“I think this outline makes it easier for students, teachers and parents,” says Radner. “Everyone knows what’s being taught when.”

Similarly, a middle school and four elementary schools in Uptown plan to align their curricula.

“This area is going through gentrification,” says Anna Correa, principal of Stockton Elementary School, which is experiencing declining stability. “Some of the lower-income families are being pushed out. And we also have two or three homeless shelters in the area, which bring us kids.”

Tapping computers

In addition to its Orr School Network activity, Ryerson plans to use computers to evaluate the achievement level of transfer students, diagnose their deficiencies and help bring them up to level.

Ryerson is one of six schools the board selected to participate in the Chicago Learning Mosaic, a pilot program that connects schools to the Internet, networks the computers inside a school building and networks schools with each other.

In another arena, the school system’s leadership is preparing learning standards for every grade, which also could ease the plight of transfer students. It also plans to construct an as-yet undefined core curriculum, a controversial proposal that some school reform advocates fear will undermine local control.

Radner says the board should seek voluntary compliance with any core curriculum. “The more people who are involved and feel ownership, the better,” she says. “It’s just that simple.”