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Student mobility a struggle for some Ohio districts
Saturday, November 17, 2012
by Benjamin Lanko
Elementary students in Mansfield City Schools lost almost 30 percent of their classmates in two years. At Granville schools in Licking County, that number was closer to 6 percent.
Thousands of students across Ohio leave school districts for a variety of reasons: parents found a job, parents lost a job, custody disputes, etc. Such mobility can make learning difficult for the child changing schools, and can create a disruptive environment for the entire class, according to experts.
A joint study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, of Washington, and Community Research Partners, of Columbus, examined student mobility across Ohio, providing district-by-district looks at classroom stability.
Roberta Garber, director of Community Research Partners, said examining student movement was important to show how much the issue challenges districts across the state.
"We know from research we've done, highly mobile students have lower test scores," she said.
The challenge is well known to Dan Freund, Mansfield superintendent. Having students come and go frequently can make it difficult to create the right environment for education.
"We want our school to be a home for our kids," he said, while lamenting that not everything is within the district’s control. "People go where the work is."
Schools with large numbers of kids coming and going not only face challenges with transient students, but also with those who are stable.
"The churning of students in and out during a year is disruptive," Garber said. "It slows down the pace of instruction."
Freund said he attended the same district for 12 years, but that simply isn't the norm anymore. Now teachers must train regularly to be able to assess students who come and go throughout the year.
"It's an amazing challenge," he said.
The study looked at numerous mobility statistics. One examined the percentage of students who started in a district in the fall of 2009 and who were still there in the spring of 2011. Another looked at how many new arrivals or departures there were in comparison to the entire student population, known as churn.
At Mansfield, the stability was 72.4 percent for students in kindergarten through seventh grade. This means almost 30 percent of the students who started at the school in 2009 were not enrolled continuously in the district for the next two school years. For older students, the rate was 70.4 percent.
The study focused on the stability of kids in younger grades. Garber said that was because there are typically more reasons for a high school student to leave school than an elementary pupil.
Mansfield was not alone in battling these issues. More than 50 districts in the state had stability rates of less than 80 percent, and the majority of districts had stability rates of less than 90 percent.
Student mobility at Crestline Local Schools in Crawford County was the highest among all schools in the state, according to the study. Younger students had a two-year stability rate of 71.5 percent, and 67 percent at the high school level.
"I'm not surprised it's high," said Crestline Superintendent Dave Heflinger. "We've known our teachers are dealing with this challenge every day."
Not only are fluctuations in enrollment frustrating for teachers who have to constantly work to accomodate new students at higher or lower academic levels than the rest of the class, but it also hinders the district in determining how many teachers and classrooms are needed, Heflinger said.
"In December we may only need two third-grade classrooms, but by August we need three. Then it's back to two in December again," Heflinger said.
Heflinger said mobility has become more of a problem in the past five years. He credits the increase to the loss of one of the county's top employers, General Motors in Ontario, and a lack of other job opportunities in the area.
He hopes a new school building, opening in December to grades seven through twelve, and a new online curriculum option will help retain more students.
Not every district battles with high student mobility. At Granville schools in Licking County, nearly 94 percent of K-7 students remained in the district after two years, one of the highest rates in the state.
Of course, the suburban district has some advantages; it has one of the smallest percentages of economically disadvantaged students in the state.