The Rotating Door in Ohio's Public Schools

The bulletin board outside Lisa Merkuloff's 4th grade classroom has pictures and essays her students wrote on the first day of school. But for Merkuloff, this board at Euclid's Roosevelt Elementary is a constant work in progress.

Lisa Merkuloff: I believe this is up to date. Except for... he is no longer here... and there are two children who aren't on here.

Since September, Merkuloff has had five students come and go from her class at Euclid's Roosevelt Elementary. Two more never showed up. This is the norm here where principal Andrea Celico says she's had as many as 10 students move through in a week.

Andrea Celico: We've had students stay a month, a week, they'll come in and leave again. Its problematic in that we're trying to provide stability and get a grasp of where they are and what they need and a lot of times once we id their needs, they leave us.

Euclid is among the few Ohio districts that accurately track its mobility numbers. Schools are not required to use more stringent formulas accepted by most academics. Superintendent Geoffrey Jones says on average 39% of its students transferred in or out of Euclid City Schools last year.

Geoffrey Jones: It's disrupting to the entire class culture when children move in and out, especially if it's a lot. So for some teachers its frustrating and debilitating and there is a lot of pressure under No Child Left Behind.

The federal Act requires students to show improvement on standardized math and reading tests each year. In Ohio, new students aren't included in scores until they've been in the district for 120 days. Studies show that students on the move are more likely to fall behind. And that means trouble for some schools trying to improve the grades they receive under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Virginia Rhodes: A school hardly has a snowball's chance to move up in those rankings until it stabilizes the student population.

Virginia Rhodes has worked in Cincinnati public schools for more than two decades. She looked at student movement in Ohio's 8 largest school districts. Her dissertation is in this month's Perspectives on Urban Education, published by the University of Pennsylvania. Mobility is much more important to a school's success, Rhodes says, than the socioeconomic and racial makeup of its students. She focused on city schools. But she says her data is relevant to other Ohio classrooms.

Virginia Rhodes: Mobility is mobility. The interruption of instruction, the instability of relationships between peers, teachers and students can cause the same disruption to the instructional program as it does in the city.

Suburban school districts around Cleveland are helping each other combat the problem. Jim Connell heads an inner-ring superintendents' group. He says districts are getting better at tracking students as they migrate and sending their information along to their new schools.

Jim Connell: I think that's why you see this practice in all first ring districts - working diligently when a child moves in to put together the best orientation for that child.

At Camp Hiram in Chagrin Falls, high school students eat hamburgers during a break in a teen leadership workshop. Jackie Massingill is the new kid at her lunch table. Euclid High is the third school this 15-year-old has been to in the last 15 months.

Jackie Massingill: It's real hard. You're competing against everybody because you don't know as much as they know because they've been there longer and stuff.

Massingill's English teacher chose her for this conference, in part to help her meet new friends and boost her confidence. Educators say attention like this is just as important for mobile students as working on grades. Yvonne Sims helps orient new students as an 11th grade guidance counselor at Bedford High School.

Yvonne Sims: The most important thing is getting them to feel comfortable in the new environment and helping them transition from the old school to our school.

But researchers like Rhodes say that's not nearly enough. Often districts who have to appeal to voters for school levies aren't anxious to analyze or make public a potentially embarrassing problem. And Rhodes says that's a handicap because schools with low rankings get stuck in a vicious cycle as students can now transfer out of low performing schools.

Virginia Rhodes: One of the flaws in No Child Left Behind is that high mobility schools are penalized further by having children move even more which makes the problem even worse.

Rhodes suggests schools keep better statistics, devise stricter transfer policies and educate parents about student turnover. Mhari Saito, 90.3.

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