Kids on the Move

By Mary Ellen Flannery

About 13 percent of American children, most of them poor, Black, or learning English, will switch schools four or more times by eighth grade – a record of disruption that almost certainly limits their opportunities to achieve, according to a recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The report, commissioned last year by then-Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) in anticipation of the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), was based on U.S. Department of Education data from 1998 to 2007.

With the recent economic recession pushing families out of foreclosed homes or onto the road in search of jobs, it’s likely that the current rate of student mobility is even higher.

And that’s not good for kids. Students who switch schools tend to have lower scores in reading and math, and they’re more likely to drop out. Often times, students will show up at their new school before their records can transfer, making it hard to quickly identify learning issues, or find appropriate language or special education services.

Better data systems would help – and that’s a point that NEA makes in its call for sensible reauthorization of ESEA, also known as No Child Left Behind. But it also makes sense to consider the kind of community supports that would help kids and families in poverty.

The GAO found that students from families that did not own their own home made up about 39 percent of students who changed schools four or more times, but just 20 percent of students who changed two or fewer times. (The report included mundane transfers, like from elementary to middle school, in its data.) With that in mind, it’s clear that initiatives to promote home ownership – like federal housing loans or the local construction of affordable housing – could be helpful in keeping kids in their classrooms.

At the same time, NEA has called for better funding of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a part of No Child Left Behind that deals directly with students who are experiencing homelessness. Not all parents – or educators – know that the law requires school districts to bus students to their home schools, even when their temporary shelter would put them within the boundaries of another school or district.

NEA also supports additional funding for Parent Information Resource Centers, as authorized by ESEA, and for Title I’s parent outreach projects. With better information and support, these parents – especially from poor, minority and immigrant communities – still can help their children be successful, despite obstacles.