High Student Mobility, Exacerbated by School Choice, Overwhelms Neighborhood Schools

It is easy to lose sight of what matters in the huge debate about how to support students who are not succeeding at school.

We blame the so called “failing” schools identified by the No Child Left Behind Act, and we blame the schools our states have taken to ranking “F” according to the plan promoted by Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, and we blame the teachers we now evaluate by their students’ standardized test scores.  Sometimes we even fire teachers en masse as part of the school “turnaround” plans prescribed by the federal government for schools whose overall test scores are in the bottom 5 percent nationally.

But only rarely do we look at deeper, hidden factors that are harder to document and far harder to do something about.  In a recent piece in the Washington Post, Michael Alison Chandler documents and examines the impact on children and on their schools as students move from school to school in Washington, D.C.

Chandler explains, “The churn was particularly acute in the city’s comprehensive high schools, where rosters grew by as much as 30 percent…. Students came and went from other countries, from other schools, from neighboring districts, from jail.  They stayed for a day or a few weeks, or for the rest of the year.”  And the district cannot track where they go when they leave: “Many who left disappeared from the city’s records completely.”

What are the consequences, particularly in high schools?  “Experts say that such high levels of movement create disruptions and distractions at a time when students are at the greatest risk of dropping out of school.  They make schooling more difficult for children and teens, interrupting routines, learning, and formative relationships with friends and teachers.  The flux is also hard on schools, as teachers and counselors must constantly adjust to changing classrooms.  ‘We’re used to it,’ said Amber Oliver, a 10th grade English teacher at Roosevelt High, a neighborhood school… that started the 2014-2015 school year with 487 students, enrolled 73 more by May and had 47 students withdraw.  ‘We are an open-door school.  Students that nobody else will take, we will take them.'”

Chandler examines the consequences for the District of Columbia’s neighborhood high schools in today’s climate where policy makers have imagined school choice as a strategy for school improvement.  The idea is that competition makes everybody try harder.  Washington, D.C. now offers a range of schools including selective schools and a range of charter schools.  “The District also is a national leader in school choice, with 44 percent of students enrolled in public charter schools and a lottery system that allows students to enroll in traditional schools throughout the city.  Policies that allow for expansive school choice… are intended to improve educational opportunities. But some say they have an unintended consequence.”  While many charter schools are permitted to close admission and refuse new students after the beginning of the school year, “neighborhood schools are required to enroll students at any point…  A charter school’s funding is based on October enrollment, no matter how many students the school loses or gains throughout the year.  Traditional schools (in the District) receive funding based on projected enrollments from the previous spring.  Critics say the system encourages traditional schools to inflate projections and charter schools to let go of students after their October audits.”

Records for the school district show that, “During the 2013-2014 school year, the school system’s enrollment grew by 2 percent—with 3,175 students entering midyear and 2,226 leaving—while charter schools’ enrollment declined by 5 percent—with 1,306 entering and 3,164 leaving…. Among high schools, nearly every traditional high school gained students, while every charter school lost students.”

“Often,” writes Chandler, “transient students bring complex challenges that can take schools time to identify and  begin to address.  They present additional challenges in a city such as Washington, which already struggles to educate its most at-risk students and where thousands of children are homeless or have family instability.”

Although Chandler describes conditions in the public schools in our nation’s capital, her story is being replicated across the United States as poverty is becoming increasingly concentrated in segregated big-city neighborhoods.  In his new book, Our Kids, Robert Putnam concludes: “A recent study of California high school teachers’ daily classroom routines made vivid just how different the learning environments are in high-poverty and low-poverty schools.  Stressful conditions from outside school are much more likely to intrude into the classroom in high-poverty schools.  Every one of ten such ‘stressors’ is two or three times more common in high-poverty schools than in their low-poverty counterparts—student hunger, unstable housing, and economic problems; lack of medical and dental care; caring for family members and other family and immigration issues; community violence and safety concerns.  One consequence is that even though the nominal number of instructional hours doesn’t differ between high-poverty and low-poverty schools, over the course of the average week, teachers in high-poverty schools spend roughly three and one half fewer hours in actual instruction, and over the course of the academic year high-poverty schools lose almost two weeks more to teacher absences, emergency lockdowns, and other challenges concentrated in such schools.  Formally, high-poverty schools may be given the same resources, but the ecological challenges facing the former render them much less effective in providing quality instruction to their students….” (pp 171-172)

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