Lasting Effects of Elementary Student Mobility

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Nearly three quarters of homeless students live "doubled up" meaning they stay with friends or extended family members.
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Every child deserves to feel cared about and heard.
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“I Wish My Teacher Knew,” by Kyle Schwartz, provides teachers several approaches for meeting each child where they are in all types of situations, from living in poverty to handling grief and loss.

Separating home life and school life for students can be impossible, as detailed in the book, I Wish My Teacher Knew(Da Capo Press, 2016), by Kyle Schwartz. It helps communities to better understand childrens’ development and build stronger learning environments. Kyle shows that an integral part of teaching is often left out of curriculum manuals: the importance of forming a community. The following excerpt is from chapter 1 “Welcomes and Farewells.”

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“Ms. Schwartz, I have a big surprise for you,” a gleeful voice called out. With thick coke-bottle glasses magnifying his brown eyes, Ronaldo took pride in being the first student to line up each morning when the bell rang. “I read for two hours last night,” he told me, as he put his homework in the basket. Despite English being his second language, Ronaldo was reading a year above grade level. His dream was to be a scientist, and he was always ready to tell you a surprising fact about Venus or volcanoes.

Then one fall day, Ronaldo’s life changed forever. He arrived at school and told me matter-of-factly that he wouldn’t be in my third-grade class much longer. I was told that his father had been detained by the police. The family fought his deportation, but when news came that their appeal had been denied, Ronaldo’s parents made the difficult decision to leave the life they had built in Denver, so that the family would not have to live divided between two countries.

To Ronaldo, the idea of moving to Mexico brought mixed emotions. Of course, being reunited with his father was welcome, but doing so at the cost of leaving the only life he had ever known was intimidating. From the information I had, Ronaldo had been born in the United States and was therefore a US citizen. Colorado was his home. He had attended our school since preschool and had formed tight friendships with his classmates; he was the darling of every teacher who had ever taught him. Before leaving for Mexico, Ronaldo made his last days at our school count. He never missed a single homework assignment, even though an official grade would never be recorded. As the days ticked down, he took it upon himself to come to school each morning with an additional assignment completed: a letter carefully handwritten on blue-lined paper. His first was for me:

Dear Ms. Schwartz,
Thank you for all you have done to teach me, thank you for helping me learn. I will always remember you. Do not forget about me.

The next day he brought a letter for the principal. His former teachers, the school secretaries, even the lunch ladies all received farewell notes from Ronaldo. He penned letters to each of his friends, thoughtfully thanking them for their friendship and imploring each to remember him.

If my life had been uprooted, my father taken away, and I knew I would likely never see my friends or teachers again, my initial response certainly would have been a flood of anger and resentment. Likely Ronaldo experienced these same feelings, but he also made a deliberate choice to display gratitude. Watching him approach such a trying situation with maturity beyond his years taught me a powerful lesson about grace under pressure.

On his last day with our class, we took as many pictures as we could. Students presented their own letters to Ronaldo, recounting their memories, pledging their lasting friendship, and wishing him luck on his journey. There was some scuffling about who would sit next to him at his last lunch and who would get the privilege of playing with him during his final recess. The students signed pages of a book for him, and presented him with a plastic shark’s tooth necklace so he could be “strong like a shark,” which he showed off proudly for the rest of the day. As the bell rang on his final day with us, there were several students in tears due to their love for Ronaldo. An unspoken anxiety that a similar situation could arise for other families hung in the air.

“Don’t forget me,” Ronaldo implored me more than once before he left. He need not have worried. Ronaldo is the type of student that will forever be etched in a teacher’s memory. If anything, I hope he remembers me. Such a child, brimming with potential and committed to learning, could certainly achieve great things.

I hope that wherever Ronaldo is, he is learning and happy.

America’s Mobile Students

Like me, all teachers have seen students come and go from our classroom communities. When we look at these arrivals and departures nationally, they begin to tell a story of how common student mobility is in today’s classrooms. We can also begin to understand the causes of student mobility and the implications these movements have on a student’s education.

“Student mobility” is a term educators use to describe the phenomenon of students changing schools for any reason other than grade promotion. The widely cited, and still continuing, Early Childhood Longitudinal Study has followed a representative sample of kindergarten students since 1998 and found that by the time this cohort entered fifth grade, 61 percent of students had made at least one school change. Another wide-reaching analysis of student mobility led by Dr. Russell W. Rumberger of the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that 16 percent of fourth-grade students had moved schools more than twice in the last two years.

We now know that nearly all students will change schools before entering high school. A 2010 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found significant differences between the 70 percent of students who are “less mobile” (who changed schools two times or less before entering high school) and the 13 percent of students who were “more mobile” (who changed schools four or more times). Researchers found that “students who changed schools four or more times were disproportionately poor, African American, and from families that did not own their home or have a father present in the household.”

We also know that student mobility does not simply affect individual students. It affects school communities as a whole. In the United States, there are “high mobility” schools, termed this way because they serve a disproportionate share of those more mobile students. The GAO study found that 11.5 percent of all schools serve a student body that consists of more than 10 percent more-mobile students. It was also found that schools with high rates of student mobility also tend to serve more students who live in poverty, qualify for special education services, and are learning English; they also have higher absenteeism than schools with low mobility rates.

Students who are more mobile tend to go to schools where resources are already stretched thin in order to serve students with greater needs. This means that student mobility cannot be fully understood when looked at as a singular issue; it is interwoven with complex socioeconomic issues. In reality, mobility is just one symptom of many different factors that affect our students.

Why Are Our Students Mobile?

American students move for a multitude of reasons, but there are two basic categories each move can fit into: voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary moves obviously involve choice. A family might buy a new house and therefore change schools or consciously decide to make a school change. I changed elementary school every two years as a child, simply because the population in my suburb was growing so quickly that new schools were constantly being built to meet the demand.

The difference between a voluntary move and an involuntary move matters because as Rumberger explains, “Voluntary moves are often planned in advance, they often take place between school years to minimize the disruption to students’ educational lives. In contrast, involuntary moves often occur during the school year and, hence, can be more disruptive to students’ educational experience.”

In my classroom, families have reported to me that they chose to enroll or unenroll their children in my school for a variety of voluntary reasons. One father told me the last school had assigned an overwhelming amount of homework. Other parents have pointed to a perception of disrespect from teachers at the former school. Another family simply wanted their elementary-aged children to attend school near their middle school–aged child. One of my students, Licia, left our school because her older brother was accepted to a nearby arts school and she was able to attend as well. Even though Licia knew in advance that she would be changing schools, it was a source of worry for her. She would tell me, “I know it’s for my family, but I don’t want to leave my best friends. I like it here.”

Involuntary causes of student mobility vary as well. Sometimes these moves can be the result of a family change such as a death or a divorce. Economic factors play a role as well. Many families move when there has been a job loss or the cost of living has increased. Housing instability can play a major role in some communities. When I was student teaching, my colleagues who had taught at the school for a number of years noticed a trend also noted by the Government Accountability Office. It seemed some students were changing schools on a cycle. We realized that the apartments near the school ran a “one month free” special on rent. Families would pay the first month’s rent, get the second month’s rent free, not be able to pay the third month, and then be evicted.

A teacher I work with used to witness these evictions firsthand:

“I worked in the legal department of a property management company for one year. Most of my responsibilities entailed filing legal documents to evict tenants who had become delinquent on their rent. One day, I worked with the local sheriff to evict a family. Hours passed as I watched them stack all of their possessions into lopsided piles on the sidewalk. I remember clearly the expression on each one of their faces. The children looked scared and confused, but it was their mother’s distraught face that is burned into my memory. The family had nowhere to go. That day affected me profoundly. I was no longer willing to contribute to the desperation I saw that day. The next day I signed up for a teacher-training program. That family is the reason I teach today.”

A student changing schools because of an eviction is an example of disruptive mobility. According to the National Center for Homeless Education, common causes of student mobility are poverty, migratory families, homelessness, immigration, and children being placed in foster care. And that’s not all; an individual student might be dealing with several of these issues at the same time. When there is a sudden, involuntary change in schools for a student, there are almost always challenging circumstances surrounding it that teachers need to be aware of.

Ronaldo’s story is just one of many. In 2013, the Center for Public Integrity shared records from the Applied Research Center demonstrating that “between July 2010 and September 2012, more than 105,000 people claiming to have US citizen children were deported.” In my four years of teaching, there has always been at least one student in my classroom dealing with the deportation of a parent or a family member.

Likewise, I have consistently taught students who struggle with homelessness. My students have told me they slept in their car the night before, they had moved into an aunt’s garage, or they were staying with another family until they could find a place of their own. Teachers may think all children who are homeless live in a shelter, but this is not true. Nearly threequarters of homeless students live “doubled up,” meaning they stay with friends or extended family members. Teachers might not even be aware that a student in their classroom is struggling with homelessness.

Sadly, the chances of having a student who is homeless in our classrooms rise every year. We now have more homeless students in our nation’s schools than ever before. According to a US Department of Education report, homelessness is on the rise with school-aged children. During the 2012–13 school year, there were 1,258,182 homeless students in American public schools. Of students who are homeless, 16 percent are children with disabilities and 14 percent have not yet acquired English.

Each move our students make has a story attached to it. Our work is to listen to those stories. The more we know about the causes of mobility in our particular students, the better able we are to meet their needs and advocate for solutions that will provide support for our communities.

Excerpted from I Wish My Teacher Knew: How One Question Can Change Everything for Our Kids by Kyle Schwartz. Copyright ©2016. Available from Da Capo Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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