Becky Zachmeier, the principal at Cowell Elementary in southwest Denver, knows where each child in her building is. She walks the halls all day, checking in on them and their progress.
But she doesn’t always know whether they’ll be back the next day.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Zachmeier pulled a quiet fifth grader aside to ask him, “what’s happening tomorrow?” His family is moving, but he doesn’t yet know what school he’ll be in come Monday. If he moves, it will be his seventh school move in five years.
Research indicates that those moves could have major impacts on his success with everything from academics to behavior. And schools and school districts are increasingly making changes to mitigate the effects of frequent student moves, in part because of the potential impacts student mobility have on state accountability measures.
“Frequent school changes are linked to likelihood of dropping out,” said Judith Martinez, the state’s director of dropout prevention. And for those who don’t drop out, “with each move they lose three to six months of academic progress.”
High poverty schools like Cowell, where over 95 percent of students live in poverty, will often see mobility rates of more than 20 percent, as families move around for work and affordable housing. Frequent school moves are also typical for homeless students and children in the foster care system, whose experiences have driven much of the understanding about what it takes for transitions to be successful.
“If [students] are not placed accurately, it can contribute to some behavior issues or course failures,” said Martinez. Those effects are compounded for students, like the boy mentioned, who move frequently.
Zachmeier said she sees those effects in the students in her school, including the boy and his sister — also at Cowell — who both struggle with emotional and behavioral issues
“We’ve gotten him to a point where he can be in classes and where he can be successful,” said Zachmeier, who asked that no student names be used. She is worried all of that work will go out the window if he has to move, especially since the uncertainty of his family’s move is already impacting his performance. “With moving, [he and his sister] have been off the wall.”
The impacts of mobility also extend beyond the students who move. Schools that see a large proportion of students moving in and out deal with a host of logistical challenges that threaten to overwhelm their staff time and systems.
Zachmeier and her staff have to request that previous schools send them student records, which include critical information about special education status and test scores. But those can take weeks to arrive, so she and her teachers have to use their own judgement about student needs.
And students often show up expecting to be placed in a class that same day. But Zachmeier says that’s not usually possible.
“You can’t just walk down the hall with the new kid,” she said. Many students arrive without even basic school supplies, and placing a student in the middle of a class without warning the teacher can disrupt class for students already present.
Big systems, big problems
Most student transfers in the state occur in just seven districts and nearly a quarter occur in three of the state’s largest districts: Denver, Jeffco and Aurora.
Many metro-area districts, including Denver and Jeffco, have undertaken district-wide initiatives to ease transitions, including streamlining the records request process and creating a pacing guide for all district schools.
“One of the most awful things, destructive things that happens to kids that move a lot is that they can lose instruction and critical pieces or they’re relearning things, rather than moving forward,” said former Jeffco superintendent Cyndi Stevenson.
Now, students moving between Jeffco schools should land within about a week of where they were in their previous school.
The district also established practices to ease students’ entry into new classes. Students are tested within days of arriving at a new school, using either internal assessments or standard skills tests like Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) used statewide.
“You do as much as you can to get [students] in the right place instructionally,” said Stevenson. Then, in the school, teachers and school leaders find out “where they have gaps and we try and fill them.”
And it’s not just Front Range districts. Mesa Valley School District 51 in Grand Junction did a whole-district curriculum alignment three years ago and officials say it has made a big difference.
“Whenever when you have mobility in a district, if our teachers in our systems aren’t in alignment, kids can grow up with gigantic holes,” said Lesley Rose, Mesa’s executive director of elementary schools. “We thought that wasn’t right for our families.”
Mobility and accountability
The impact of student moves on districts are apparent in the results of the state’s accountability system, with many low-performing districts posting high mobility numbers.
All but three school districts facing the end of the state’s timeline for making drastic performance improvements have mobility rates above the state average. Many had mobility rates over 20 percent, meaning more than one in every five students would move during the school year.
“Some schools of thought [say] that districts with high mobility rate, that contributes to their performance challenges,” said Martinez.
Vilas and Karval, the two districts who will see the clock run out on their turnaround efforts this year if they don’t improve, were both in the top 15 most mobile school districts in the state for several years in a row. Both districts have large online schools, which have a track record of high mobility and low performance.
The state only started tracking mobility in 2007, in an effort to fill a need identified by school districts. Districts felt it was a crucial metric that was not considered in evaluating performance (officials said mobility is sometimes internally tracked by districts but not in state accountability systems).
Top level fixes
Officials at the state and national level have made changes in recent years aimed at both reducing mobility and easing the transition between districts.
One significant move was the introduction of statewide codes for courses, with the goal of easing credit transfers between districts.
For example, explains Martinez, “let’s say in Walsenberg, they have a course they call ‘solar flares, sunbursts and snow caps.'” If a student were to move to another school district, officials might not know whether it meets their requirements for a science course students need to graduate.
“Now with the common course code, you can name your course anything what you want but it will still count towards [that requirement],” said Martinez.
There have also been efforts at the national level to minimize transitions for the traditionally highly mobile foster care population.
The 2008 Fostering Connections and Adoptions law requires caretakers to keep foster students in the same school when their placements change, as long as it is in the students’ best interest. It also mandated, in the event of a transition, that the student’s record be transferred promptly, a process which currently can take as long as a month.
A similar decades-old law, the McKinney-Vento Act, provides similar provisions for homeless students.
But officials and observers agree that for both laws, enforcement is difficult and inconsistent, with each district adopting a different approach.
The strengths of being small
The influence student moves have on schools is most readily apparent in small, rural districts where the movement of just a few students can increase the rate of mobility substantially. In fact, the highest mobility districts in the state are predominantly small rural and remote districts like Agate on the eastern plains, the smallest school district in the state.
But while the districts may be small, student moves can have large impacts. Several districts saw substantial mid-year funding cuts due to drops in enrollment.
Those cuts hit hard in districts where, according to Martinez, their ability to help students is limited by resources.
“They may not have a systemic method in place so that a student who comes in is ready to go,” said Martinez. Instead, they employ smaller-scale strategies afforded by their size. “Rural districts do a good job of using students as ambassadors, [to communicate] even things like what’s the good lunch day, the inside track.”
While that won’t address academic deficits for the student, it can make a big impact on reducing the chance of dropping out.
“Students may not engage with the school immediately,” said Martinez. Having a way into the school community, whether through ambassadors or extracurricular activities, can help prevent students from feeling disconnected.
It’s a strategy Zachmeier uses at her urban school as well, to offset the effects of family moves.
“We constantly lose kids and get kids but we try to build community [anyway],” said Zachmeier. She and her teachers organize frequent trips to a local roller skating rink to reach out to students and families. She has also started working with Lake Middle School, the school Cowell feeds into, to provide family healthcare.
The challenges of frequent moves means that more responsibility falls on parents. Zachmeier meets regularly with parents about their student’s performance and the school’s efforts. She has an open door policy and is trying to figure out how to get more parents in the school helping out.
“It’s coming,” said Zachmeier, but not as fast as she’d like. The structure of her school means “we’ve got get more parents in to do the work of the school.”