Schools Absorbed 1,000 Transient Students

Melissa Bailey PhotoA teacher has already mapped out how to help each of her kids master long division. Halfway through a math lesson, halfway through the school year, she gets a knock on the door: A new student is here.

The mid-year interruption comes as her school accepts another student fresh from out of town.

Versions of that scenario played out hundreds of times at New Haven schools over the past year.

And the interruptions took place at some schools much more than at others, according to data released by the school district last week.

Transience is a major challenge confronting city educators as they try to address kids’ individual learning needs, observed two city principals who face the problem most acutely. About 1,000 kids signed up after Oct. 1 for the last academic year at district public schools, including newcomers to New Haven and kids who switched schools, according to the 2011-2012 data.

The data came to light amid the city’s annual process of grading all city schools into three “tiers” based on student performance.

They highlight a challenge facing some of New Haven’s most struggling schools: While most schools enjoy a stable student population, a small subset—neighborhood schools in high-poverty parts of town—experience the brunt of mid-year transfers.

“We think transience is a big deal—something that’s important to focus on,” said Assistant Superintendent Garth Harries. He said the district is committed to working on the issue, but “we obviously haven’t cracked the code yet.”

One of those schools, Roberto Clemente Leadership Academy, admitted over 100 transfer students throughout the course of the 2011-12 year. Principal Pam Franco (pictured) said staff spend the summer mapping out individual plans for each student in the school, based on academic records and an original enrollment list. Then, when new kids arrive mid-year, educators scramble to figure out that kid’s strengths and weaknesses, often without academic records as a guide. The new students have to adjust to a new school culture and new routines, which can cause a disruption for other kids, she said.

“It puts us at a disadvantage,” Franco said.

Data for the 2011-12 school year show marked contrasts between schools: At Clemente, 20 percent of the student body joined the school after Oct. 1. Meanwhile, John C. Daniels School, a K-8 school of the same size in the same neighborhood, admitted just one late transfer, a transience rate of 0.2 percent. One big difference: Clemente is a neighborhood school that accepts rolling admissions, while Daniels is a magnet school accepting kids through a competitive lottery.

The disparity extends citywide: Magnet elementary schools enjoyed transience rates between 0 and 3 percent, while most K-8 neighborhood schools had between 10 and 29 percent of their students show up late in the year. A similar pattern followed for high schools.

Click here for a spreadsheet outlining school-by-school transience rates, as well as the rates of special-ed, English-language learners and poverty, as measured by the number of kids who qualify for Free and Reduced Priced Lunch.

The disparity stems from more complex factors than whether a school is a magnet, said Assistant Superintendent Harries. He called transience a national problem facing urban districts, where kids tend to move around more due to issues related to poverty.

Neighborhood demographics and a school’s popularity both play a big role in determining how many seats get filled, and whether kids stay there, he noted. For example, Nathan Hale and Worthington Hooker schools, two popular neighborhood schools in more affluent parts of town, had 6 percent transience rates. Students lock in seats and don’t tend to leave. And Columbus Family Academy, a K-8 neighborhood school with a popular dual language program, had only a 3 percent transience rate, though it’s in a part of town hit harder by poverty.

The transience problem isn’t new to New Haven. But over the past year, the school district has begun to discuss it more and look for solutions. The topic arose when the city launched a new way of grading schools three years ago. To give context to the test scores, the school district decided to factor in several environmental factors to a school’s report card. It started calculating a school’s transience rate—the percentage of kids who enroll after Oct. 1. It’s not a perfect measure, said Harries, because it doesn’t account for how many kids switch schools over the summer. But it aims to get at what Harries said is one of the most challenging factors facing city schools.

NHI GraphicIn a stable school environment, kids go through a progression of skills throughout the year, Harries said. When kids join a school mid-year, they have to catch up not only academically, but in learning the culture and routines of the school. “All of that takes the attention of the teacher and the school and it can also be distracting for other students,” he said.

Schools with the highest transience were transitional programs such as Domus Academy (69.7 percent) and New Horizons (77.4 percent). Those schools take in kids who struggle in mainstream schools, then eventually send the kids back to more traditional settings. Among traditional elementary schools, Lincoln-Bassett had the highest rate of turnover, with 29 percent of kids arriving after Oct. 1.

Hill Central School, a K-8 neighborhood school, ranked second with 20.9 percent of 392 students joining late in the year. Principal Glen Worthy said the school receives a steady stream of kids from Puerto Rico, out of state, out of town, and other New Haven schools. During the third week in January, the final week of the semester, the school received six new kids, he said. Worthy said he often gets little or no advance notice that the student is joining the school. If he’s lucky, the kids come from the district’s central office with registration sheets in hand.

“The majority of the time, kids just pop up,” Worthy said. Staff find a classroom with an open seat and send the child along.

“Teachers could be in the classroom one day and a new student could walk right in,” he said. “Our teachers are so used to it—that’s part of the norm for them.”

If a kid is arriving from Puerto Rico or out of state, the school has no easy access to academic records. Principal Franco said the school can call a kid’s previous district for records, but the records often take up to a month to arrive. Meanwhile, each school has developed a way to test a kid’s basic skills and figure out how to help them without the luxury of summer planning time.

Worthy said the majority of midyear transfers come from outside New Haven. A few come from charter schools or even other neighborhood schools, such as Lincoln-Bassett. Franco said just last week, Clemente received a new student from another neighborhood school who had had “discipline issues” there.

The student “wanted a fresh start” at a new school, Franco said. Clemente also received students from Staten Island who lost homes in Superstorm Sandy and moved to New Haven to live with family, she said.

NHI GraphicFranco said when Clemente gets a new student, she meets with the student and a guardian. A guidance counselor meets the student, too. For their first day at Clemente, new students get paired with a “buddy” in the classroom, so they can have a ready friend for the first day until they make friends on their own. Transferring schools, especially for younger students, “is pretty scary,” Franco said. It takes a kid about a year to adjust to a new school, she reckoned. The interruption is not easy for teachers, either, she acknowledged.

She said she gives teachers at least a little advance warning that a new student is on the way.

“We call them” in the classroom and tell them, “‘We’re coming down.’”

Dave Cicarella, president of the teachers union, called mobility a “huge” challenge facing urban educators. In his 28 years at Fair Haven School, he encountered the problem on a daily basis, he said. For 15 years, he was in charge of testing all newcomers as the head of the reading department.

He said mobility is most acute in urban areas: His niece, for example, teaches in Madison, a well-to-do shoreline town; she can pretty much count on having the same 25 kids all year. At Fair Haven, he recalled, new kids showed up almost every day. It could be the beginning, middle or end of the week; it could be 9:30 a.m. or noon. “They just show up on your doorstep.” That’s not a bad thing, he said—public schools shouldn’t turn away kids. But it presents a major challenge for educators.

Teachers will be in the middle of a lesson, he said, when “somebody bangs on your door. You stop the lesson,” find the kid a seat, and scrounge up some textbooks. Based on an initial test when they walk into the school, you stick them in a reading group. Then, even as the new kids get comfortable in class, other students disappear, transferring out mid-year, he said. At Fair Haven, he recalled seeing up to 20 new transfers in and out of the school per week.

“Just imagine how difficult it is to teach” when you don’t have the same students in class every day, Cicarella said. He noted that charter schools, which accept kids via lottery, do not have the same problem. In the new accountability era, when New Haven is grading teachers, principals and schools based on student performance, mobility needs to be taken into account, he said.

The transience stats in this story do appear as asterisks on a school’s report card. Transience is one of four factors—along with the percentage of special ed, English-language learner and Free and Reduced Priced Lunch-eligible kids—that the city looks at when determining where a school falls into one of three “tiers.” Based on environmental factors, the schools are assigned an A, B, C or D “peer group,” with D the most challenging. (Those letters appear next to the school names on the charts pictured in this story.)

In part due to their high transience, Hill Central and Clemente both fell into the C category. Davis Street School, a top-performing magnet K-8 school, was ascribed an A for a less-challenging student population. While 81.1 percent of kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, the federal measure of poverty, the school has a transience rate of only 1.4 percent. And only 1.1 percent of kids are learning English as a second language, compared to 30.9 percent at Hill Central.

Hill Central, which has quietly boosted kids’ proficiency levels on state standardized tests from 28 to 48 percent over four years through a federally funded turnaround effort, remains in the bottom-ranked Tier III on the school report cards. That’s in part because the district measures student growth not by proficiency, but by a more nuanced measurement of how much every kid improves compared to similar peers in the district. (Technical term: Median Student Growth Percentile.)

Some staff at a “Tier III” school and union President Cicarella spoke out this year against the grading system because they said it mars schools’ reputations and may deter parents from sending their kids there.

The data highlight a catch-22: Popular schools like Davis attract lots of applicants, keeping their seats filled. Less-popular schools, such as Hill Central, always have open seats. So when new students transfer into the district, they get sent to Hill Central, adding to the challenges at that school.

The district tried one solution to this problem at Brennan-Rogers, a decades-old neighborhood school in an isolated pocket of poverty in the West Rock housing projects where the city launched a “turnaround” experiment in 2010 to reverse years of educational failure. To make way for the turnaround, Schools Superintendent Reggie Mayo gave Brennan-Rogers special permission in its first year to receive no new transfers after Oct. 1. Then the school scored a federal magnet grant, which meant it converted to admissions by lottery, shutting off the stream of mid-year transfers that neighborhood schools endure.

Last year, Brennan-Rogers enjoyed just a 2.0 percent transience rate, a dramatic difference from the conditions it faced before the turnaround.

Other city turnaround schools—Hill Central, Wexler/Grant and Clemente, where an outside operator is now running the show—don’t have that luxury. They accept rolling admissions around the year. If all schools converted to magnets like Brennan, there would be no school left to accept the new arrivals.

The disparity in mobility is one issue a new “equity working group” has been addressing over the past year, said Harries. He said it’s not an easy problem to fix. One solution would be to hold spots at popular schools like Worthington Hooker to accommodate new students that inevitably transfer into New Haven during the year, to alleviate the burden at schools like Hill Central. However, that proposal may prove very unpopular with parents scrambling to get those seats, he noted.

Harries said the working group did settle on one small policy change: Kids who leave magnet schools on long-term suspensions used to lose their spots in those schools and join neighborhood schools after they serve their disciplinary term. Now the magnet schools take those kids back.

The equity working group formed last year when some schools complained that contrary to the district’s initial pledge, they did not get any extra resources for being a Tier III school. Even Wexler/Grant, one of two schools picked out from the Tier III group to undergo an intensive “turnaround” effort, got no extra money to boot. Harries said the district has been able to snag grants to help some Tier III schools, but in a tough budget climate it does not have the money to boost resources at all Tier III schools. He said the equity group is looking at non-monetary solutions to Tier III schools’ woes, including the staffing of social services personnel. The equity working group has gotten a “slow start” to the year, conceded Harries; it has met just once this school year.

Harries said solutions to the transience problem may emerge over the next year as the city overhauls its student admissions process. A redistricting committee spent the last year examining the rules by which students get admitted to different schools; recommendations included unifying the magnet and neighborhood application lotteries and, in general, taking a more systemic approach to student enrollment.

Harries said the approach to student mobility “has to be a collective and systemic solution. The reality of our situation is that 5 percent of our students are new every year. Most of that is a function of the transience related to poverty. We as a district need to be developing strategies that support the district as a whole and all of our schools,” he said.

“I don’t think there’s a district in the country that’s really solved” the transience problem, Harries added. “I think most districts don’t even talk about it. I think it’s an extremely healthy thing for us to be working on. ... As hard as the conversation is, I’m glad that our tiering has pushed us to look at these issues.”

In the meantime, Hill Central and Clemente will continue fielding a stream of new students for the rest of the year.

“We accept everyone with open arms,” Franco said.

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posted by: anonymous on February 4, 2013  6:16pm

What about the absenteeism problem? A good number of students across all grades are enrolled, but miss so many days of school over the course of the year that they fall years behind their peers and they might as well not be there at all.  That’s by far the biggest issue in the district.

posted by: Brutus2011 on February 4, 2013  6:55pm

This is an astoundingly important article because it provides a rare portal into the reality of our public schools.

It also provides a glimpse into why our schools struggle year after year with the same issues of poverty, transience, and the persistent achievement gap between our kids and the suburban kids.

Assistant Superintendent Harries acquits himself well in this article and I hope he proves to be an innovative manager for the sake of our kids.

I am not exactly sure what Mr. Harries meant when he said that the approach to student mobility “has to be a collective and systemic solution.”

Here is where I believe the logjam exists that prevents real progress to school reform—the perspective.

A simple change from looking down at the problem(s) to looking at the problem(s) from “eye-level” will, I believe, show the way to the kind of public school district that will literally cast New Haven as a “city shining on a hill.”

We can’t figure out what to do because the top-down, chain of command, my way or the highway approach just does not work in this context. Period.

Now, or very soon, is the time to jettison the patronage politicization of NHPS as a new administration will soon be chosen.

The old way of power politics and its attendant favored jobs program has to go if the problems that we all say we want solved are to be solved.

I hope Assistant Superintendent Harries is a friend of public schools and not a dismantler of them.

And, I hope our mayoral candidates, Elicker and Holder-Winfield, do not bow to the pressure of assuring continuity to Mayor DeStefano’s and Superintendent Mayo’s way of doing things.

posted by: CreatingUrgency on February 4, 2013  10:05pm

I wish the district-wide curriculum (and all curriculum) took this into account. We are expected to be on a certain page on a certain date. There is very little flexibility that acknowledges the reality of transience.

posted by: urban ed on February 5, 2013  8:33am

Wow, Melissa. What a great article about something that heretofore has only garnered a passing sentence or two! Thank-you.

I still have some of my old gradebooks from my time at Wilbur Cross. They tell the story well. In every section, the number of names is roughly double the actual class size—half entered well after the end-of-September threshold where those of us in the know actually bothered to set up our gradebooks. Half of the names with lines through them. Attendance taken via a running total to save time at end of marking period. Students who attended only once and never withdrew, racking up failing grades all year long.

In those days also, you couldn’t mark a kid absent, even if they were on your original class list, until they had actually shown up once. I wonder if that is still the case.

Anyway, aside from the transience of our principals, student transience was one of our biggest issues, and it sounds like it still is. Not sure what the solution is. Perhaps an Intake Center of some kind, designed for the purpose, to at least assess and at most nurture kids into the schoolgoing culture before they are placed in a standard school? Only for kids entering the district after Ocober 1, such a facility could provide a bridge between nothing and something and at least provide the students’ ultimate schools with decent data about them.

posted by: Kevin on February 5, 2013  11:31am

First, I want to commend Melissa on a very good article.

@anonymous (M.A.) have you considered that absenteeism and transience might related? Poverty and other variables that affect transience might also be behind absenteeism. At the same time, the distraction of students constantly coming into a class can reduce the ability of a teacher to reach her/his other students, which can be a factor in absenteeism.

posted by: swatty on February 6, 2013  10:34pm

Urban ed has some great out of the box thinking! What in the world are we doing allowing sooo many kids to float in and out of a school year? These kids themselves could be better served if they were triaged at a school designed for this type of disruption.

Eventually they could be brought online with everyone else, but to just throw kids into the mix seems counter productive to teacher and students alike. It would appear to lead to morale issues from teachers and learning growth stunts with the students.

54 Meadow Street again sounds like it doesn’t have a clue on a situation that has been going on for years. I’d give Mr. Harries a clue about “cracking the code”: don’t hide from your faults! Tell the public, get feedback, develop a plan of attack. No one in the country/world has dealt with this issue?!?