D.C. hopes to slow stu­dent mo­bil­ity

Thou­sands move in and out of schools dur­ing year, cre­at­ing dis­rup­tions

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY MICHAEL ALI­SON CHAN­DLER

More than 10,000 stu­dents trans­ferred into or out of the Dis­trict’s public schools dur­ing the 2013-2014 school year, a mas­sive ebb and flow that ex­perts say is linked to lower achieve­ment and fal­ter­ing grad­u­a­tion rates.

The churn was par­tic­u­larly acute in the city’s com­pre­hen­sive high schools, where ros­ters grew by as much as 30 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to in­di­vid­ual school data on stu­dent mo­bil­ity re­leased by the Of­fice of the State Su­per­in­ten­dent of Ed­u­ca­tion (OSSE). 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. Many who left dis­ap­peared from the city’s records com­pletely.

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 in Pet­worth 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.”

Among those who en­rolled in the spring — some just weeks be­fore the school year ended — were a 17-year-old from Gu­atemala re­turn­ing to classes for the first time since he was in sixth grade, a ninth-grader who left a nearby char­ter school af­ter she was caught with mar­i­juana, and an 18-year-old who dropped out of South­east Washington’s Bal­lou High ear­lier in the year af­ter mov­ing into a group foster home in North­west Washington.

Of­ten, 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--

stu­dents and where thou­sands of chil­dren are home­less or have fam­ily in­sta­bil­ity.

Ac­cord­ing to a 2010 Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice re­port, about 13 per­cent of stu­dents na­tion­ally changed schools four or more times by the eighth grade. The most mo­bile stu­dents were dis­pro­por­tion­ately poor, black and came from fam­i­lies that did not own a home. The re­port found that about 12 per­cent of the na­tion’s schools had high rates of mo­bil­ity, with more than 10 per­cent of stu­dents leav­ing their school dur­ing a sin­gle year.

Dozens of schools in the Dis­trict gained or lost the equiv­a­lent of 10 per­cent of their en­roll­ment, ac­cord­ing to the OSSE data.

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 — which com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try are be­gin­ning to em­brace — are in­tended to im­prove ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties. But some say they have an un­in­tended con­se­quence.

“They pro­mote the idea that you can change schools at will,” said Rus­sell Rum­berger, a pro­fes­sor of ed­u­ca­tion at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Santa Bar­bara who stud­ies mo­bil­ity.

Jen­nifer Niles, the Dis­trict’s deputy mayor for ed­u­ca­tion, said that the Dis­trict needs to do far more work to un­der­stand why stu­dents weave in and out of the city’s schools and across state lines into Mary­land and Vir­ginia. She wants to iden­tify schools that are suc­cess­ful at hold­ing on to po­ten­tially tran­sient stu­dents to bet­ter un­der­stand how they do it.

Rou­tine school changes typ­i­cally hap­pen dur­ing the sum­mer, when tran­si­tions are eas­ier to man­age ahead of a new school year. Midyear tran­si­tions are far more dis­rup­tive.

In the Dis­trict, tra­di­tional schools bear the brunt of midyear turnover. Many char­ter schools do not ad­mit stu­dents af­ter the be­gin­ning of the school year, while neigh­bor­hood schools are re­quired to en­roll stu­dents at any point.

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, OSSE data shows. Among high schools, nearly ev­ery tra­di­tional high school gained stu­dents, while ev­ery char­ter school lost stu­dents.

Car­dozo Ed­u­ca­tion Cam­pus, a public school that serves six­ththrough 12th-graders, had the high­est in­flux, with a 30 per­cent en­roll­ment in­crease due in large part to a grow­ing num­ber of im­mi­grant stu­dents; the North­west Washington school’s net gain was about 18 per­cent, as scores of stu­dents with­drew dur­ing the same year. Na­tional Col­le­giate Prepara­tory, a char­ter school in South­east Washington, lost the equiv­a­lent of 14 per­cent of its stu­dents, partly due to a pol­icy that au­to­mat­i­cally with­draws stu­dents who have been ab­sent for 25 days, said Jen­nifer Ross, the school’s founder and ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor.

De­met­rice Lester, 18, said that com­ing from a char­ter school, the churn at Roo­sevelt was strik­ing. He left KIPP DC Col­lege Prep in the win­ter af­ter his grades fell and he thought he couldn’t catch up, he said.

“At KIPP, you saw the same peo­ple ev­ery day. The same kids. It’s kind of like a prep school. Ev­ery­body’s par­ents are on them,” he said. “Here, a lot of kids don’t re­ally come to school.”

Brian Wilt­shire, an Ad­vanced Place­ment English teacher at Roo­sevelt, said he starts the school year teach­ing Plato’s “Alle- gory of the Cave,” dis­cussing rhetor­i­cal de­vices, what’s real and what’s not, and how ed­u­ca­tion shapes your per­spec­tive. It’s a les­son he likes to re­fer to through­out the year. But he of­ten looks out at his class and sees sev­eral stu­dents who don’t know what he’s talk­ing about.

“Ev­ery­thing we do in class is in­ter­con­nected,” he said. “If you can’t make those con­nec­tions, they are only see­ing a piece.”

Teach­ers at Roo­sevelt said they help new stu­dents get up to speed by cus­tomiz­ing les­son plans and of­fer­ing time for make­ups. Wilt­shire said he stays at school un­til 8 p.m. four nights a week to as­sist stu­dents.

The stu­dents who trans­fer in late are of­ten less likely to come to class, he said.

All the com­ing and go­ing has a cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect. Of the 123 se­niors who grad­u­ated from Roo­sevelt on June 12 or are sched­uled to grad­u­ate in Au­gust, just 27 started at the North­west Washington school at some point dur­ing their fresh­man year; 78 per­cent of the grad­u­ates spent three or fewer years in the school.

Af­ter many years of view­ing stu­dent mo­bil­ity as a fam­ily prob­lem that schools could do lit­tle to con­trol, more school dis­tricts are fo­cus­ing on the is­sue, Rum­berger said.

Along with the Dis­trict, a hand­ful of states, in­clud­ing Colorado and Rhode Is­land, have be­gun re­port­ing data on mo­bil­ity. Cal­i­for­nia is de­vel­op­ing a sys­tem for hold­ing schools ac­count­able for stu­dents’ aca­demic progress even af­ter they change schools.

Niles hopes to re­duce mo­bil­ity by chang­ing the way schools are funded, de­vis­ing a sys­tem that pays schools ac­cord­ing to ac­tual en­roll­ments.

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 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.

Cathy Reilly, a long­time ad­vo­cate for Dis­trict high schools, said pos­si­ble so­lu­tions are more com­plex: “We have to change the cul­ture at schools, so we re­ally make it more at­trac­tive to stay, and get rid of this whole men­tal­ity that the an­swer is to just go find some­thing bet­ter.”

Stu­dents en­rolling at Roo­sevelt dur­ing the past two years en­tered a school that al­ready has a makeshift feel. The school has been op­er­at­ing in tem­po­rary quar­ters in the for­mer MacFar­land Mid­dle School build­ing while the 1930s-era high school un­der­goes a $130 mil­lion ren­o­va­tion next door.

The re­open­ing of Roo­sevelt was re­cently pushed back un­til the fall of 2016. The new school will fea­ture a dual-lan­guage track and a global stud­ies pro­gram, as well as a proud new fa­cade.

For now, stu­dents make do in the ag­ing build­ing next door with bars on the win­dows and stor­age boxes in the hall­way, while bull­doz­ers and cranes out­side prom­ise some­thing bet­ter.

Antony San­tay, 17, said he was look­ing for a fresh start when he trans­ferred in Fe­bru­ary from Du­Val High School in Prince Ge­orge’s County, where he had been sus­pended mul­ti­ple times and was go­ing to school “about once a month.” He moved in with his mother in the Dis­trict and en­rolled at Roo­sevelt.

“I didn’t want to be a no­body in life,” he said. It was strange to walk into a place where he did not have any friends, but he said he started go­ing to school ev­ery day and by spring he had A’s and B’s on his re­port card, some­thing he hadn’t seen in years.

In the fall, he said, he’ll come back to Roo­sevelt.

“I’m do­ing bet­ter,” he said. “I think it’s bet­ter if I stay.”

MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASHINGTON POST

Roo­sevelt High stu­dent De­met­rice Lester, 18, trans­ferred to the neigh­bor­hood school af­ter leav­ing KIPP DC Col­lege Prep in win­ter.

MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASHINGTON POST

A Roo­sevelt High stu­dent walks through a hall­way in the school’s tem­po­rary quar­ters in the for­merMacFar­landMid­dle School build­ing.

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