Teachers try to hit moving targets City schools struggle to educate children of families on the move

March 20, 1997|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,SUN STAFF

Three newcomers have arrived and eight students have disappeared from Mamie Ivory's classroom since September, and the last one vanished without a goodbye.

"She was starting to make it, she was moving toward the honor roll and now, she's gone," the teacher says, scanning the changing names of third- and fourth-graders in her yellow roll book. "I don't even know where."

Sudden and frequent transfers are common in Baltimore public schools, creating gaps in children's knowledge and burdens for school management.

For the 1995-1996 school year, enrollment as of Sept. 30 was 109,900, but the school population churned: By June, 66,600 moves, many of them transfers in or out, were recorded.

The city also had the state's lowest annual test scores, and there is a link, researchers and local school officials say.

In Baltimore and other urban areas, "The idea of a kid settling into a neighborhood school is idealized. The reality is different for many kids," says Karl L. Alexander, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist who has been tracking 767 children since they entered city schools in 1982.

While the Maryland General Assembly is debating a bill that would bring sweeping changes to school management, many in education believe the success of future reforms will depend on efforts to stem or counter the uprooting of children.

"This is my last move, I hope," says Mary Ward, mother of three and first-time homeowner. "My son's mad at me for moving him."

In October, she returned to the working-class Brooklyn area where she grew up and enrolled her children in the school she first attended: Maree Garnett Farring Elementary.

They had started at Farring. Then in 1993, they were sent to Curtis Bay Elementary, a couple of miles away. Three months later, they transferred to George Washington Elementary, where they stayed until just after school started in September.

She was trying to find a better life for her kids; the boy is missing the friends left behind.

"I went to seven different schools in one year when I was growing up, and it just tore me up so bad," she says. "I guess I've done the same thing to him, and I feel bad about that, but kids don't understand that sometimes when you have to move, you do it for them."

Such mobility is common, Hopkins researchers found.

The children in the study started out in 20 city public schools. By fifth grade, they collectively had attended 112 schools, Alexander said. Forty percent of the children transferred at least once, some six times.

In many city schools, 30 percent to 40 percent of the faces present in September are gone by June.

Turbulent lives

Teacher Michaelyn Ambrose recalls a little boy who carried his toothbrush in his pocket.

"I asked him why," she says. "He said he brought his toothbrush every day because he didn't know where he was going to end up at night when school let out."

He was soon gone.

State and city school officials have never studied the school population to determine who is moving and why. A 1994 federal study found that poor children are most likely to be frequent movers -- and low scorers.

In Baltimore, no one is sure how many students are classroom nomads. But principals and teachers, social workers and parents say families move when they prosper and when they founder:

Many families crisscross communities for jobs, schools and housing seen as better or safer.

Seeking a better life, Birdie Knott took her children to North Carolina last summer and found "the grass wasn't greener." On Monday, she re-enrolled Joseph, 10, and Kenneth, 7, at Farring.

"I don't want to talk about my friends," says Kenneth, drawing his T-shirt over his face to hide his sadness. "I miss 'em."

Joseph endured taunts and fights in North Carolina; in school, he repeated "easy fractions" that he'd learned at Farring. His peers here moved on, of course.

In other cases, a crisis prompts the move when a parent's job, public aid, transportation, health, relationship or after-school care disintegrates. Evictions, rent incentives, heat cutoff dates -- all are factors.

Because Baltimore schools do not share teaching plans or methods, a fresh start in a new school can be a setback. Multiple moves raise the risk of never catching up.

"If you don't have a foundation in place in the early, primary grades," Alexander says, "you can go from bad to worse."

Held accountable

"I'm the one held accountable" says Mary Minter, principal of Curtis Bay Elementary School, where 10 transfers came and went in three days of one recent week. State testing begins in two months, and she must get these children ready.

Transcripts and other vital records may arrive days or weeks after the children do, and they aren't available by computer.

Lacking the child's history, many principals say they assign a newcomer to a classroom based on the availability of a desk: The teacher with the smallest class gets him.

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