Bouncing From School to School

It's 8 a.m. on a September morning, three weeks into the school year, and a scared-looking second-grader is standing in the office at Miles Park School in Cleveland, Ohio, waiting to be enrolled. "You don't know your last name, Billy?" the secretary, Ella Kirtly, asks, prompting him gently. He shakes his head, "I forgot!" he squeaks, sounding panicked. He starts sucking his thumb. "OK," says Kirtly. She's filling out forms, getting as much information from Billy as she can, and assigning him to a classroom. It's already three weeks into the school year, but late-starters like Billy are common here at Miles Park. It's a school of mostly low-income students-90 percent receive free or reduced lunches, and many come from the local homeless shelters. Turnover is constant. A student teacher, Janice Smallwood, leads Billy to his class. He's dragging his backpack behind him. Miss Smallwood asks what school he came from. Billy says he doesn't know. A group of older boys stop and stare at him as he walks down the hall. By the end of this particular day, six children at Miles Park will have moved on or off the rolls. Two, Billy and his sister, were added when they registered this morning. Within hours, four other students officially transferred out. Not counted in the list of transferring students are the kids who signed up but never came to school, or those who simply disappeared without warning and can't be found. According to school district data, between 19 and 26 percent of the students at Miles Park move while school is in session. But principal Bill Bauer says that doesn't come close to telling the story. From one year to the next, most of the school's population can turn over, he says. Miles Park and other urban schools are trying to cope with a revolving-door phenomenon created by a host of social ills, including a record shortage of low-cost housing. For many poor families, moving all the time has become a way of life. According to a 1994 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office, one in six third-graders has switched schools at least three times since first grade. The effects on children's learning are dire. According to a 1993 study published in the Journal of the Am; 2000 words who move frequently are significantly more likely to fail a grade, and to have multiple behavioral problems. "The magnitude of the effect of frequent moves was comparable to that of minority race, parental education, or poverty," the study's authors found. The impact of moving is worse when kids have other problems associated with poverty-unstable families, parents who have been in and out of jail, and shortages of food, clothing, and money to cover basic needs. Poor families are 50 to 100 percent more likely to move their children frequently (five or six times during their school years) than families that are not poor, the study found. This issue of kids bouncing from school to school hasn't received the kind of attention focused on vouchers, teacher testing, or national standards. But it is one of the biggest problems our educational system faces. NEA Today, the newspaper for members of the National Education Association, published an article in February 1998 called "Moving Targets: How do you educate kids who are here today and gone tomorrow?" The article includes tips like forming welcoming committees for new students, and using computer testing to place kids in the right classes. Students and teachers tell stories about their valiant efforts to overcome the sense of powerlessness everyone feels when kids come and go. At Miles Park, principal Bauer has struggled with the many problems faced by students from unstable homes. With the help of a full-time social worker, a community liaison, a homeless shelter liaison, and a cadre of parent volunteers, he is trying to create some constancy amid the chaos of children's lives. "You have to look at education more broadly than just teaching kids," says Bauer. "You have to understand what's going on in their homes, in their parents' lives." This morning he is standing in the hallway talking intently with a mother, who is homeless. Later, he will help find a case of Rid for another mother, who sent her three children to school with lice. He will drive the children with lice home, and on the way back to the school he'll pick up a group of kindergartners and first-graders who are throwing rocks at cars. Their parents are nowhere to be found. The school building itself-which sits in the middle of a deteriorated industrial neighborhood-is a physical monument to the triumph of hope over despair. From the outside, the building is not much to look at. The outer walls are a mass of cracking, crumbling concrete. The "playground" is just a gravel and asphalt parking lot. The swing sets have been stripped of swings because drug dealers used to hang around in them. But inside, you can see the results of a massive clean-up effort. When Bauer arrived four years ago, he got teachers, parents, and community volunteers to paint the rooms with bright colors. Plants now hang in all the hallways above all the lockers. The best part of the school is its central courtyard, which used to be nothing but a mass of weeds. Today there is a tinkling little waterfall and a pond, complete with lily pads, goldfish, and a live turtle. Flowers planted along the walls attract Monarch butterflies. A weather station allows students to monitor temperature and barometric changes. Bauer organized volunteers to clear the place out, and a local developer, Nathan Zaremba, donated dirt. The Cleveland Botanical Society and the Episcopal church also pitched in to help with the beautification effort. Next, Bauer says he wants to do a complete renovation of the playground, with the help of private donations and foundation grants. He believes that if it is made over new in one sweeping effort, it will be less likely to be vandalized. Listening to Bauer talk passionately about plans for the playground, you get the impression that things are looking up. Maintaining an open, positive environment in the school, both physically and socially, has encouraged many teachers, and even some formerly transient families, to put down roots here, the teachers say. But even the best principal and the most carefully structured programs can't solve everything. Classrooms at Miles Park are overcrowded, with thirty or more students to a room. Many kids have serious problems-from lead poisoning to parents who are on drugs. Teaching here is hard enough. It's even harder when kids constantly move. Inevitably, some teachers feel impatient and beaten down. Miss Smallwood leads Billy into Jane Rodgers's classroom in the basement of Miles Park School at a few minutes past eight in the morning. The teacher is looking weary and distracted when Billy comes in. She's writing busily as kids mill around the room before the bell rings, and she doesn't bother to greet him. "It's nice when they know their own name," she says, looking at Billy, who is standing only a few feet away from her. She rolls her eyes. "This is my thirty-second student, and about twenty of them are not at grade level. Of course, if I have a child who doesn't even know his last name, you know he's not at grade level. I already had somebody move out-it was a shelter student-so I'll give him that desk, and we'll have to make new name labels for everything." Mrs. Rodgers has only bare-bones information on Billy: a printout with his name, birthday, social security number, and a code indicating he moved here from a different city. It will probably take several weeks for his records to catch up with him, she says. The classroom is noisy. Kids sit facing each other in clusters of six to eight desks. Mrs. Rodgers patrols the room, stopping to yell at people for talking to each other or pounding on their desks. "So we could pound, but we couldn't do our math! Isn't that amazing! That's real smart, boys," she says sarcastically. At 8:30, Billy has still not been introduced. He's sitting at the desk the teacher assigned him, shooting glances over his shoulder at a bigger kid.Finally, the teacher stands at the front of the room and introduces B illy. "Before we get started, we have a new student today. Could you please stand and tell us your first and last name?" Billy takes a long time to stand up. He says very quietly that his name is William. "That's your full name? William?"He nods. "Where did you go to school before?" the teacher asks. Silence. "Where did you go to school?" Silence. "Was it in Ohio?" He shakes his head. "A long way away?" He nods. "So you had to drive a long way to get here?" He nods. "Eugene will help you today, because he's the one sitting next to you. Eugene, be courteous, kind, remember the Golden Rule," she says briskly. Eugene doesn't respond. That's it for William's introduction. Things move very fast in class. The teacher asks the students to correct a sentence she has written on the board. She injects an occasional, withering comment when a student gets stuck. "We've been in school three weeks. How do you know there a mistake in this sentence?" she demands of a tiny girl with beaded braids, who is standing at the blackboard. "Because every sentence begins with a period?" the girl offers. "What?" the teacher says. "What's wrong with what you just said?" The little girl freezes. Finally, a classmate corrects her. The teacher looks at someone's paper. "You messed up, too!" she announces. At the end of the first hour of class, kids are checking answers on yesterday's homework assignment. Billy is sitting in his chair, cautiously looking around the room. He hasn't been involved at all. Rodgers is not the only teacher who is openly frustrated about the new students who keep coming into her classroom. But many are working overtime to try to help. Kindergarten teacher Anne Caruso has recently been meeting with the mother of one of her students to talk about the daughter's behavior problems in class. "This woman has three kids. Her husband went to jail. She's homeless," Caruso says. "She moved in with her brother-in-law. The kids were not treated well there, so they went to a shelter. Now she's got a temporary place in East Cleveland." Since all the family problems began, the daughter has been having trouble making friends and frequently acts up. She hits other children and sometimes goes into a corner by herself and just spins around. "The mom is a terrific person," Caruso says. "But she's exhausted. She has two jobs. I told her to try to spend time with her daughter, to hold her on her lap while she's watching T.V. She's gone through so much, and she's still willing to work with the child. She's concerned about her. She's open. She's not defensive. She knows it's because of her situation and she wants to do something." Why do families like this one move around so much? "They have all kinds of problems. They can't pay their bills. Then they fall through the cracks, and they're homeless. It's terrible," Caruso says. "It's constantly stressful and worrying. You just drag your kids along with you, you don't think about them, because you're so worried. My experience is that most of these people are just like me. If I were in their situation, I'd feel the same way-scared and desperate. They have a lot of personal qualities that are admirable, that are not easily seen." She pauses. "Every time I start the year, I ask myself, can I do it again? But they're coming along. . . ." Tears begin to well up in her eyes. Like Caruso, many teachers around the country are torn apart by the problems they confront with their transient student population. "Schools of education and teacher preparation programs, especially in urban areas, must begin to prepare teachers and administrators for coping with a transient population," says a study entitled "Caring for Transient Students," published in the July 1997 issue of Journal for a Just and Caring Education. After laying out some practical suggestions, such as flexible curricula, the University of California researchers and educators who wrote the study conclude in an unscientific tone: "Teachers and administrators must learn how to grieve after they have invested hours and hours in a child and seen tremendous progress, only to have her or him leave one day without even having the opportunity to say goodbye." The pressure on teachers in Cleveland is increasing. Every fourth-grader in the Cleveland Public Schools has to take a statewide proficiency test in the spring. Teachers and principals will be evaluated on their students' performance on the test. The mayor of Cleveland, who recently abolished the school board, fired the district superintendent, and replaced him with a district "CEO," has made it clear that each school had better show improvement on its proficiency scores-or heads will roll. Setting and meeting educational standards is the order of the day. Principal Bauer is serious about improving kids' performance on the test. "But what do you do when you get a new child in who hasn't been here for first, second, or third grade, and all of a sudden you're supposed to bring her up to grade level in fourth?" he asks. "What do you do about the fourth graders who come in in the middle of the year, and don't even know about the test?" Bauer is hoping about one-third of the kids will pass the proficiency exam. "But we're looking at trying to measure their progress, too, since most of the kids won't pass." One marker of progress is an intensive literacy program, which rewards students for reading library books and passing computerized comprehension quizzes. The school also tries to get parents to read to their children. This is a particularly urgent task, since learning to read by the third grade is a major indicator of children's future success. A 1997 study by the Packard Foundation found that children who learned to read on time were less likely to end up on welfare or in jail later in life. Unfortunately, kids who move a lot are generally poor readers. A research group called the Kids Mobility Project in Minneapolis reports that first-through-sixth-graders who have moved three or more times score half as well on reading tests as students who stay put. Alix Travis, the librarian at Miles Park, is in charge of the literacy program. When children leave the school, she says, they often take the books with them. "We lose a lot of books that way," Travis says. Nonetheless, she encourages kids to check out books and to spend time in the library. It is an island of calm in the school, with carpeting, cozy reading nooks, and thousands of dollars worth of books acquired through grants and donations. "This is their only experience of browsing-it's a really sensual experience for them," Travis says. "They enjoy it in a whole lot of ways-holding books and touching them, running their fingers over the raised letters-we have beautiful books here," she says. Because there is no public library nearby, parents also use the school library. Travis says her dream is that more parents will come into the library to work on their reading skills. "One of the problems with the parent volunteers," she says "is it often turns out they can't read." Lack of affordable housing is another major problem for Miles Park parents. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released a report in April showing that a record 5.3 million poor households cannot find affordable housing. These families-one seventh of the nation's renters, including 4.5 million children-live on less than 50 percent of the median income in their communities. They either pay more than half their income for rent, or live in severely substandard housing, or both. "These families qualify for HUD assistance," the report states, "but can't get it because the Department does not have the funding to help." It's no coincidence that the housing crisis and the problem of student transiency have developed during the same time period, between the 1980s and the 1990s. The private market for affordable housing shrank by 20 percent between the 1983 and 1993, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Meanwhile, administrative delays and new, restrictive rules have made Section 8 rent-assistance vouchers harder to obtain. In response to the crisis, Congress is considering providing new money for Section 8 rent-assistance vouchers that would cover about 17,000 more families. That's 86,000 fewer than would have been covered under President Clinton's budget proposal. Bills passed by both houses of Congress, and hotly debated in conference, would also divert housing subsidies away from the poorest families, providing them instead to families that make up to $39,000 a year. HUD officials say a more serious rescue effort is needed. "Our report shows that growing numbers of men and women who serve the fast food we eat, who clean the offices where we work, who watch our children in day-care centers, and who perform many other low-wage jobs, aren't paid enough to house their families in safe and decent conditions," Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo writes. "Without housing assistance, they live on the edge of homelessness, struggling desperately each month to put food on the table and keep a roof over their families' heads." For about $780 million in additional spending on housing assistance, plus a large expansion of the low-income housing tax credit, HUD suggests the country could make a significant dent in the housing crisis. Compared to the trouble caused by transiency, it seems like a modest investment. Cassandra Wingfield, the school social worker at Miles Park, spends a lot of her time trying to track down families on the move.. "We make phone calls to try to see where the children are. More than half of the phone numbers are incorrect," says Wingfield. "I go out to their houses, and I have to talk to the neighbors to try to find out where they went." Wingfield also tries to find housing for people, she says. "At one time, anyone could go to public housing," she says. "But now they do background checks and won't let them in if they have any kind of a record. Many of our families have four or more children. It's difficult to find an apartment they can afford. And Section 8 has a long waiting list." Time limits on public assistance imposed by welfare reform may make many families more desperate. "I'm not optimistic," says Wingfield. "Once welfare is stopped, they're going to put their concentration on how do you pay the rent, feed the children. Education won't be a priority." Wingfield tells me that Billy's mother moved to Columbus, Ohio, last year, in search of a better life. She moved back from Columbus and re-enrolled her children at Miles Park because, she said, she liked the school. A week after his first, rough introduction to the school, Billy still does not know his last name, his teacher reports. His mother hasn't appeared to talk to school officials or teachers since she registered him. It's not clear where Billy is living or how long he'll stay. Transient students are not just an inner-city problem. Even relatively prosperous, mid-sized cities have been noticing high student turnover in recent years. Residents of Madison, Wisconsin, were surprised to learn recently, from a front-page article in The Wisconsin State Journal, that 850 children in the Madison district were homeless for all or part of the last academic year. Ten years ago, the number was sixty. "You can't guess which ones are homeless when you look at a class," says Pat Mooney, a social worker at Madison's Emerson Elementary School. "They look just like the other kids." Mooney helps homeless children through the Transition Education Program at Emerson. While they stay in the city's shelters, elementary-age children come to this school-a pleasant, red brick building, with a nice playground and a green playing field. A nine-year-old African American boy, Greg, his seven-year-old sister, Delilah, and their five-year-old brother, Robert, sit in the room next to Mooney's, waiting to be placed in classrooms. Their mother was in jail over the summer. The kids stayed at a relative's house in Milwaukee until recently, when they moved back to Madison to be with their mom. A few days ago, they bounced from a single-bedroom apartment, where they were crowded in with another family, to the Salvation Army shelter. During their first day at the Transition Education Program, the children are tested in math, reading, and writing. Parents can help themselves to bins of free soap, toothpaste, shampoo, and deodorant ("things the shelters don't provide," program teacher Bobbie Toney says), as well as a closet full of donated clothes. When the children start school, they will get a pack of free school supplies. "Some people are under the impression that all kids come in with holes," Toney says. "But basically they run the gamut like any kids. Some are behind, and some are very high-functioning." Greg and his siblings turn out to be high-scorers, placing well within their grade level on the standardized tests. Greg, a chubby boy wearing a green striped shirt, jeans, and sandals, has been to three Madison area schools in four years. He's missed a month of his fourth-grade year while his mom was incarcerated. I ask why he's changing schools. "'Cause we don't have a house," he says. He doesn't know where they might move next. Did they say you might be staying at this school, I ask. "No, they did not," he says, sighing."I kinda wanna really go home," he adds, squirming. Where's home? "The shelter." So that's temporary. "Yes, it is," he says, stretching the words out pointedly. I ask him how he likes Emerson. "It's all right," he says, but if he could choose, he would go back to the school he attended in first and second grade. Greg especially liked that school. "I wrote a nine-chapter story in the second grade," he tells me. "Horror-with ghosts and demons and stuff." He gets animated talking about it. I ask if he still has it. "I gave the only copy in the world to my mother . . . and she lost it," he says. He thinks a long time. "I don't know where in the world it is." Maybe someone found it and is reading it right now, I suggest. "Yeah, right," Greg says, cynically. "If I found it, I'd put it in one of those plastic things and lock it in a vault, so no one could get at it." He tells me about the story he's writing now. It's about a magic tree-an Indian boy discovers the tree, which has "extra everything," and it gives him special hunting powers. But in order to keep his powers, the tree tells him, he has to plant another magic tree, and go to the forest every day to take care of it. Norma Heerem, Greg's new fourth-grade teacher, who has just found out she'll be getting a new student in her class. "All I know about him is his name is Greg," she says. "They're not good students," she says, commenting generally on the kids she gets from the Transition Education Program. "They're usually quiet. They view themselves as temporary, and that has a big effect on how involved they get in class." It makes sense that students and teachers alike develop a kind of fatalistic detachment when they know they will only be together for a short time. But it seems a shame that Greg's new teacher doesn't know anything about his nine-chapter story, now lost to the world. Several things are obvious about Greg: he is bright and talented; he is bitter about his situation; and he is going to have a hell of a time, under current circumstances, focusing on developing his skills. But now is the time when someone could reach him. A 1990 study conducted in Prince George's County, Maryland, found that African American boys in the first and second grades performed as well as their peers on standardized math and reading tests. But by the fourth grade, their scores took a steep drop. Nationwide, fourth-grade reading scores for African American boys lag behind all other groups. A 1997 article in Parenting magazine attributed these statistics to "an undercurrent of fear and tension" that develops between white teachers and young black males as the boys' mature, as well as a general societal expectation that black boys will do poorly in school and get into trouble. Other studies, including the Kids Mobility Project, find that minority kids are much more likely to move frequently than white kids, which, combined with other negative factors, can have a disastrous effect on their learning. Mooney shows me mobility statistics for the mostly white Madison school district, broken down by ethnic group. Black students move around five times as much as whites. American Indians have the second-highest mobility factor, more than three times that of whites. "You can imagine the impact on minority achievement is huge," says Mooney. "But no one pays attention to that." When Greg comes into class, at 7:55 on Thursday morning, Ms. Heerem greets him right away. She introduces him to everyone and asks where he came from. He says he used to go to Frank Allis school. "So you've been here in Madison," the teacher says, sounding surprised. Many of the poor, African American kids who come through the Transition Education Program are from Chicago or Milwaukee. She asks Greg if he's lived in another city. He says Milwaukee, and the teacher asks if he has grandmas or aunties in Madison. He says yes, two aunts. "It's a pretty nice town, isn't it?" she says. Greg nods. The fact is, except for last summer, he's been a Madisonian since he was three. This really is his home town. But moving around within the district makes him a perpetual stranger. Greg begins quietly copying out letters. He appears to fit right into class. I ask Pat Mooney, the social worker, what he thinks will happen to Greg. "What happens to a lot of African-American boys-he may end up in prison," Mooney says. This seems too much to bear. "Maybe not, in Greg's case," Mooney says. "Maybe he'll do OK, but the deck is stacked against him." Some teachers at Emerson have written a booklet on helping transient students. "With the increased mobility found in our school, our staff is faced with additional challenges," it states. "We believe that: Every child in our school is valued. Every child needs support through life changes such as moving, family structure change, imprisonment, and death." It's jarring to see the children's journey spelled out this way. Surely the role of schoolteachers is not just to shepherd them down this dreadful path. Standing behind the desk in his cluttered office at Miles Park, principal Bauer tugs on a continuous printout of transfers in and out of the school, and lets the pages unfold, cascading to the floor. "What's the answer in urban education?" he asks me. "The answer is: It takes more than a school to fix it. You have to think about welfare reform, how they're cutting people off, and so they're pairing up in homes now because they can't afford the rent." Bauer doesn't have much to say about how things might change now that the mayor has seized control of the schools. "But let me ask you this: Would that playground outside exist in a suburb in Michigan? Look at the deplorable housing and ask, who's responsible for the housing code? Look at the sidewalks, which are nonexistent, where the kids have to walk to school each day. Who's in charge of that? The city. Now they're taking charge of the schools? Who's in charge of drug dealing? Who's responsible if the kids move when they are getting welfare-of keeping track of their residence?" Bauer's point is clear: The schools can't do it all. To begin with, children need a stable place to call home.Ruth Conniff is the Washington Editor of The Progressive. Some of the children's names in this story have been changed.


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