Helmut Schmidt, Published November 29 2013
Transient students challenge F-M area schools
Eighty to 100 of the nearly 340 students at Jefferson will either leave or be new to the school, based on recent years, counselor Laura Sokolofsky said.
“There’s a lot of moving in and out,” Sokolofsky said.
Likewise, since June 1, Eastwood had 150 to 200 children move in or out of the attendance area of the school, Principal Paula Henry estimates. Eastwood has an enrollment of 516 students, according to data from the district.
The classroom flux in some area schools likely affects how well the students forced to move are able to succeed.
Sokolofsky said research shows every time a child moves, it sets them back three months academically.
Henry said while poverty plays a part for some families in moving – perhaps to secure more stable housing – middle-class families are being drawn to the Fargo-Moorhead area by the state’s growing economy.
“They come to North Dakota for the jobs,” Henry said. “That 150 to 200 isn’t all families in poverty. We have many, many families that come here for the work. They might come here for a year and then move on.”
David Kerbow in a 1996 study of student mobility in Chicago found that “students experiencing numerous moves fall further behind their stable counterparts as their education progresses. The gap is approximately one full year of growth by the sixth year for those students who change schools four or more times.”
Tina Thoennes is a fifth-grade teacher who has taught seven years at Jefferson. She agrees that the gap for highly mobile students, as well as those who are chronically absent, grows each year, she said.
“We’re starting to see that gap in fifth grade, and it’s getting wider,” she said.
Teachers use differentiated instruction to reach students of varied ability levels. Local schools also promote collaboration among colleagues to help improve learning, Thoennes said.
This year, of Thoennes’ 16 students, no one has left. Last year, she had one student leave. But the year before, there were seven students who left.
An ever-evolving roll call can take a toll on educators, too.
“It is a stress. You do a lot of extra after school and in the morning” helping students, Thoennes said.
Frequent student transfers between schools isn’t just a local problem.
A 2010 analysis by the federal Government Accountability Office found about 13 percent of students in the U.S. change schools four or more times between kindergarten and eighth grade. The study found students who move that often are more likely to be poor, black and from families that don’t own a home.
The biggest problem for highly mobile students is they miss key concepts for their grade levels as they transfer between schools, says Anita Welch, an assistant professor of teacher education at North Dakota State University.
Welch, who herself moved often through elementary and middle school, saw some of her students struggle with the problem when she taught high school chemistry and physics in and around Kansas City, Kan.
“The greatest issue is the fact that when you have students coming into your classroom, they may not be at the same level content-wise,” Welch said.
“That creates challenges for the teacher in getting them up to speed, and also the dynamic in the classroom,” she said. “I had students that would bounce in and out of foster care. And you have that here with parents going through divorce, or parents who are transient going to the western part of the state.”
Students are also trying to develop relationships with their peers to fit in, so that also competes with learning, she said.
“There’s a lot of challenges of being transient. My parents were in the Air Force. I went to nine schools in nine years,” Welch said.
Kerbow said in his study that while there doesn’t appear to be a great difference in the learning in first grade, by second grade, a pacing gap shows and widens in the next two years, hitting its widest point by the fourth grade.
“The mobile classrooms, in fifth grade, actually have a level of emphasis equivalent to fourth grade emphasis in the stable schools,” Kerbow wrote.
The Fargo, West Fargo and Moorhead school districts don’t keep easily accessible records that regularly document student mobility on a school-by-school basis. None of the districts were able to produce numbers for the 2012-13 school year that tracked students coming into and leaving each of their schools individually.
However, Fargo had districtwide results for 2012-13. And Moorhead had school-level data from the 2009-10 school year.
A West Fargo public schools spokeswoman said the district did not track data on student mobility.
In Fargo in 2012-13, 1,132 students left the school district, while 1,224 arrived, the districtwide mobility report says. Districtwide enrollment was 10,748 at the end of the school year in May.
At the elementary level, Fargo’s public schools had 514 students transfer out of the district between August 2012 and May 2013, while 635 transferred into the district. By May, elementary enrollment was 5,115 students.
At the middle school level, 172 students left Fargo schools, with 234 arriving. May enrollment in middle schools was 2,347 students.
At the high school level, 446 students left Fargo’s public schools, but of those, 137 had dropped out. The district saw 355 new students enter its high schools. High school enrollment in May was 3,286.
Moorhead’s district demographic data for the 2009-10 school year shows that 525 students came into the district, while 347 left. Another 266 students transferred between district schools. Overall enrollment was about 5,200.
In the 2009-2010 report, none of Moorhead’s three elementary schools showed student mobility matching Jefferson’s or Eastwood’s.
For example, Robert Asp, which in 2009-10 had 781 students, had 92 students who were new to Moorhead’s public schools or transferring from one of the district’s other schools. Another 66 students transferred out of the district or went elsewhere in the district.
Readers can reach Forum reporter
Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583