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Concern over students switching schools

Turnover linked to lower scores

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / August 2, 2010

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As state education officials push school districts to overhaul the lowest-achieving schools, they are focusing on a long-overlooked issue they say could be a key in raising performance — the frequency that students switch schools.

New statewide data appear to show a strong correlation between schools with weak academic performance and those with large influxes and exoduses of students.

Some 400 schools across Massachusetts — most of them in poor areas and considered underachieving — have high turnover rates, with at least 20 percent of their student populations registering or departing during the school year, according to data collected by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education using a new student tracking system.

By contrast, about half the state’s nearly 1,900 schools had enrollment changes of less than 10 percent and tended to have stronger records of academic performance.

The numbers have helped crystallize what educators long suspected: that school performance is closely tied to a factor well beyond school walls.

“Every time a student moves there is a gap in education,’’ said Mary Bourque, assistant superintendent in Chelsea, widely considered an expert on the issue. “Highly mobile students can have gaps in education of three, four, or five years.’’

The figures present teachers and education officials trying to boost performance with a mixed blessing: On one hand, the data may help direct resources and attention to an issue that has traditionally received little of either when it comes to improving schools. But it also has pointed them to a deeply embedded social issue that could be extremely difficult for schools to solve.

A state law enacted in January that aims to overhaul the state’s lowest-achieving schools encourages academic interventions. Educators say such interventions could include diagnostic exams to help teachers decide what, if any, additional tutoring transient students need.

While educators hailed the measure for being the first in recent memory to address the issue of transient students, they also said that simply bolstering academic interventions can help only so much.

By far the more effective solutions, they say, lie in big issues like increases in affordable housing, which could help reduce the movement of poor families from one school district to another, and programs that provide stable employment opportunities. But those are issues traditionally outside the bounds of education.

“The reality is our children are moving a lot more than they used to, and that’s a challenge for us,’’ said state Representative Carl M. Sciortino Jr., a Medford Democrat who has been raising the issue in the Legislature for five years.

Students who transfer frequently between schools often come from poor families who move to find work or more affordable housing, specialists say. Some are immigrants who struggle with English fluency and others may have learning disabilities.

To date, the state has not studied how transient students perform on the MCAS or whether schools with high turnover score lower overall. But research conducted by other academics and school districts suggests that they do.

A study by Boston public schools five years ago, for instance, found that 65 percent of students who transferred between schools during the year passed the MCAS English test, while 81 percent of students who were at the same school the whole year passed. Bourque found similar disparities when she analyzed statewide data three years later in a report widely circulated among urban superintendents.

The Globe also studied the issue in 2003, finding that Boston’s high school seniors that year who had been part of that class since their freshman year had better success with the MCAS. About 92 percent of those class members passed both the English and math portions. Only 72 percent of all high school seniors enrolled that year passed the exam.

Perhaps as telling are the experiences of students themselves. Juan Colon, a 17-year-old senior at English High School in Jamaica Plain, remembers the difficulties he experienced as he bounced from school to school. Since kindergarten, he has attended five city-run schools, one parochial school, and a charter school.

“It was difficult to make friends and keep them,’’ said Colon, noting that he struggled in reading and writing.

Colon said he turned around academically during his middle school years while attending Boston Preparatory Charter School because of its rigorous curriculum and teachers who focused intensively on each student. Now at English High, Colon said he earns As and Bs and is president of the National Honor Society.

“I’ve come a long way,’’ said Colon, who is studying this summer at Skidmore College in New York as part of the Summer Search Program, a national leadership development program for low-income high school students.

At Somerville High School, a new student arrives almost weekly, either from a surrounding community or another country, said principal Anthony Ciccariello. The influx prompted the school to open a welcome center, where signs greet students in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Haitian Creole.

Still, students leave at a similarly high rate. Last year, school administrators began surveying exiting students to determine why they were going. The most often-given reason: Their families found more affordable rents elsewhere.

“We have students come and go on a fairly regular basis,’’ Ciccariello said. “There are periods of time when you tend to get more of it, often at the beginning of the month because of property rentals.’’

Several school districts have taken steps to respond to this ever-changing population. Boston has implemented a consistent curriculum in English and math among most of its schools to ease the transition of students who jump from one school to another.

The district also has opened a “newcomers academy,’’ where immigrant students who have not attended schools for several years in their native countries can receive intensive tutoring.

In any case, transient students can pose difficulties for schools trying to elevate MCAS scores, especially when they arrive shortly before the test is administered, too late for schools to influence their performance.

At the Elihu Greenwood Leadership Academy, an underperforming elementary school in Hyde Park, administrators and staff closely monitored students, adjusting teaching techniques in hopes of elevating the school’s overall scores. Then, a week before the MCAS exams, several new students registered from out of state and another new student arrived a few days later.

Principal Maudlin Wright is philosophical, saying that’s life at a school where about a third of the student body changes during the academic year.

“The bottom line is MCAS is not the most important thing; it’s preparing students to graduate from high school and to be successful in college,’’ said Wright, who nevertheless is hoping the state will inform her of an improvement in MCAS scores next month.

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.

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