Turnover hurts kids, schools

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Principal Laura Williams of Harvard Elementary had a big problem with student mobility during the 1990s. Students transferred in and out of the Greater Grand Crossing school at an alarming rate. Anywhere from a third to half of students moved each year.

Citywide, the picture wasn’t much brighter back then: About one in three kids switched schools each year—many of them mid-year, which educators say is most disruptive to a child’s education.

Williams noted the school’s ongoing dilemma: raising achievement despite the turnover. “I remember a student who came in just when it was time to test. And I am to be held accountable for that child?” she told Catalyst in 1996. (Williams has since retired.)

Today, the picture is somewhat brighter at integrated and predominantly Hispanic schools, where mobility as measured by the Consortium on Chicago School Research has inched downward about 2 percentage points since 2001.

But the picture is not so bright at low-income African-American schools like Harvard. Data from the Consortium show that mobility remains highest in these schools, erecting yet another barrier to quality education for youngsters who attend them. Overall, 11 percent of students at predominantly black schools transfer mid-year, compared to only 7 percent at other schools.

At Harvard, for instance, 22 percent of students transferred into the school mid-year in 2005-06, and 20 percent of students transferred out before the school year ended, according to Consortium data.

“We have a high percentage of families who say they are homeless,” says Principal David Hannsberry. “Some move out of the area and then come back.”

“There has always been a gap between African-American and other students in terms of mobility, but data show that this gap [is] widening,” says senior research analyst Marisa de la Torre. De la Torre is conducting a follow-up report on mobility, updating a 1994 study that provided the first in-depth look at the problem in CPS. (See Catalyst, April 1996)

De la Torre speculates that public housing demolition and school closings, which hit hardest in low-income black communities, are to blame.

Fermi Elementary, for instance, has one of the highest percentages of new students arriving mid-year in the district. The surrounding South Shore community has seen an influx of displaced public housing residents in recent years, and these residents, in turn, tend to be more mobile and to move more frequently to find affordable housing. South Shore is also undergoing redevelopment, notes Fermi Assistant Principal Steven Taylor.

“There is a lot of rebuilding, lots of vacant lots,” says Taylor. “The area is changing and that’s a major part of our mobility issue.”

While the district has some policies that aim to curb student turnover, further addressing the problem is not high on the CPS agenda. Two initiatives launched in the mid-1990s—a task force and a public education campaign—quickly fizzled when the officials in charge left the district.

Yet some schools are making progress at cutting turnover.

A parent’s choice?

New students face both social and academic adjustment, says Hannsberry. “What we try to do is make them comfortable and get an understanding of where they are [academically] and what services they need.”

One national advocate notes that urban districts have yet to recognize the significant problems mobility can cause for schools and students, who miss learning critical skills and quickly fall behind their peers when switching schools.

“Ultimately, high turnover creates failed schools,” says Chester Hartman, the director of research for the Poverty and Race Research Action Council in Washington, D.C.

But Jacqueline Anderson, head of the Office of School Coordination, says the district is limited in what it can do to stem turnover, given the high population of children who are homeless, in foster care, or whose families have moved in search of affordable housing.

“Mobility is in our system whether we want it or not,” she says.

CPS policy allows students who move out of a school’s attendance area to remain at that school until the end of year, as long as parents provide transportation. And 7th- and 8th-graders who move can remain in their original school until graduating, with the district providing bus cards to help with their transportation.

“This is a parent choice, not a school choice,” says Anderson, who says she experienced the problem first-hand as principal at Young Elementary in Austin. “Principals beg parents not to move their children and they do it anyway. What does a school do? When it comes to mobility, it is tied to social and economic issues.”

Core curriculum fizzled

One way for the district to minimize the educational harm of mobility would be a common curriculum so that students don’t miss out on learning important skills. Yet one effort aimed in that direction went belly-up in the 1990s.

Back then, Orr High’s feeder elementary schools realized that students were moving mostly within the community. The network of schools received a grant from the now-defunct Chicago Annenberg Challenge to create a single curriculum.

One former principal recalls what happened over time. “Schools started to change, principals retired, the new principals weren’t interested and the thing dissolved,” says Leon Hudnall, who then was principal of now-shuttered Morse Elementary. “We kept having meetings and no one showed up. However, there was value in a common curriculum because the students in that area were so mobile.”

Other schools and communities are finding solutions, however. In high-mobility Englewood and West Englewood, Area 14 Instructional Officer Jose Torres asked principals last October to convene a “think tank” and develop strategies to address the problem.

Torres came up with the idea after speaking with a principal who said that he lowered his school’s mobility rate with a simple tactic: meeting with every family who wanted to transfer and counseling them to stay or to at least wait until the end of the school year. (CPS recommends that strategy, officials say.)

Some of the task force ideas include: developing a buddy system for all new students, collecting information on why students are leaving the area and hosting events to welcome new students or send off those who are leaving.

Says Torres, “The intent was to look and say, ‘These are the circumstances, now what do we do?'”

Build it, and they will stay

But the best defense, several educators point out, is creating a school that families simply don’t want to leave.

“Families need to feel they have personal connections in the school, have resources and a reason to continue the relationship,” says David Kerbow of the University of Chicago’s Center for Urban School Improvement, who was lead researcher for the 1994 study on mobility. “Charter schools have mobility rates less than 5 percent, but families move frequently and [still] make efforts to keep their child in that school.”

At Spry Community School in Little Village, Principal Carlos Azcoitia uses discretionary funds to maintain a full-day kindergarten—a hot commodity that is in high demand with parents. Spry also has four half-day preschool classes and has expanded to include a high school.

As a result, some families have preschoolers and teenagers enrolled in the same place, Azcoitia notes. “It is very convenient and students become so comfortable that they want to stay, especially in the high school.”

Spry is also open from early morning until late evening, offering GED and English as a Second Language classes and other programs for parents, at times that are convenient for them.

Finally, Azcoitia makes a point of educating parents about the negative consequences of mobility, especially if students are transferred mid-year.

“We tell them to wait until the end of the year, unless they just can’t avoid it. We let parents know that staying put is critical for success,” says Azcoitia. “And the ones who move but plan to stay in the community, we tell, ‘Don’t move too far. Stay within the attendance boundaries.'”

The strategy appears to be working, Azcoitia says. “We have been sustaining our growth every year. People are attracted to us. They want to stay.” CPS data show mobility rates for Spry elementary and high school were 16 percent and 3 percent respectively. The percentage of new students who arrived mid-year was only 6 percent.

Across the street, Saucedo kept mobility low with a similar plan. Last year, its mobility rate was 3 percent, according to CPS data; the percentage of new students who arrived mid-year was less than 1 percent.

The school has a magnet program in fine arts that attracts students who are bused in from across the city, but a large percentage of students are from the neighborhood. Saucedo’s former principal notes that students stayed at the school even if they moved.

“I remember we always had a lot of cars pulling up to the school in the morning and the evening,” Karen Morris recalls. “We were very focused on individual students. We really got to know every child and every parent. We made them feel like they belonged to Saucedo.”

Arie van der Ploeg, a senior researcher at Learning Point Associates, a nonprofit education consulting firm, agrees. “The most stable schools are the gifted centers, and some of those children travel for hours to get to them.”

Intern Sarah Levy contributed to this report.

To contact Debra Williams, call (312) 673-3873 or send an e-mail to williams@catalyst-chicago.org.