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How high 'student mobility' rates hurt the whole school community

Ellis Elementary School in Rockford
Peter Medlin
Ellis Elementary School in Rockford

In 2021, Lewis Lemon Elementary School in Rockford had the highest student mobility rate of any elementary school in Illinois. “Student mobility” rate is the percentage of students who experience at least one transfer in or out of their school during the school year.

Around 50% -- half -- of the kids at Lewis Lemon moved in or out of the school between October and the end of the school year.

In 2022, Ellis Elementary School in Rockford had the second-highest student mobility rate of any elementary school in Illinois -- with just over 34%. Lewis Lemon was also in the Top-5 again. For context, the state average for mobility is about 7%.

Lewis Lemon and Ellis are also less than a half a mile away from each other on Rockford’s west side. The other schools in Rockford with sky-high mobility rates are also in this area: Auburn High School and Kennedy Middle School.

Tabitha Endres-Cruz is the executive director of the Northwest Community Center in Rockford.

Along with other community services, they offer after-school programs and academic enrichment for elementary school students -- many of whom go to Ellis and Lewis Lemon. She says she’s not surprised to hear about mobility issues on the west side of the city.

“There are so many schools that are so close by," she said, "that if you move one block the wrong direction, you're in a different zone."

In fact, she says that very situation just happened to a family with kids in their program. They moved one street down and had to switch schools. But even though they transferred schools, their school bus can still come to the community center after school. Endres-Cruz says they see themselves as a steadying presence, especially for students experiencing disruptions like that.

Ehren Jarrett is the superintendent of Rockford Public Schools. He says their community really wanted to return to a neighborhood schools model with some choice programs built into it.

“But, with that, comes, I think, a real risk for high mobility,” he said.

There are 21 elementary school zonesthat fit into four high school zones. He says having so many rigid elementary zone boundaries is an issue they might need to change with policy.

“One of the policy proposals we are going to be contemplating is, do we at least allow mobility within the high school zone as opposed to literally having these small elementary zones,” he said. “When you talk about some of the things that happen with housing instability, we are doubling down, inadvertently, I think on some of the challenges that creates.”

Jarrett says student mobility is way too high in Rockford, even compared to other large, urban districts. And he says it's a crucial issue that doesn’t get enough attention.

“I've had multiple people share with me the assertion that mobility rate has an even higher correlation to student achievement than even low-income statuses,” said Jarrett.

Moving itself is pretty common, but schools with higher percentages of Black and low-income students tend to have higher mobility rates. That’s according to Richard Welsh. He’s an Associate Professor of Education and Public Policy at the Peabody College at Vanderbilt University.

Welsh published research examining student mobility in 2017 in the Review of Educational Research.

He says there are several factors that cause mobility. He says first you can break it down into “structural” and “nonstructural.” So, “nonstructural” is when a family moves on their own whether it be for a new job or loss of work.

“Most of the literature has found that there's this association between change in schools and worse student outcomes," said Welsh. "So, a decrease in test scores and higher dropout rates."

He says there are situations where the benefits of moving outweigh the costs of mobility. Say, a family moves into a neighborhood with better schools and more support staff.

But, with low-income communities, that’s not usually the case -- especially during a pandemic. About 70% of Lewis Lemon & Ellis Elementary School students qualify as low-income.

Poor families often have to move quickly to the safest, most convenient location possible without being able to take the time to weigh the strength of schools. A study from Johns Hopkins University found this is often due to income change, housing quality and landlord issues, and neighborhood violence.

Those are “nonstructural” reasons for mobility. “Structural” is due to systems and policies of the school itself. That could be as simple as finishing 8th grade and moving on to high school. But, it could also mean exclusionary school discipline policies like suspensions, expulsions or “expulsions-in-abeyance.”

Rockford Public Schools consistently ranks in the Top-5 in Illinoisfor suspensions and expulsions. Administrators in Rockford handed out 7,000 suspensions last year. That’s more than twice what Elgin’s District U-46 gave out, even though they have more students than Rockford.

They also send hundreds of students back and forth to alternative schools every year through “expulsions in abeyance.” Richard Welsh says that school discipline and mobility are inextricably linked.

“I think when we think of chronic absenteeism, when we think of school discipline, when we think of student mobility -- they tend to be cause and consequences of each other,” said Welsh.

He says it’s also important to note that mobility doesn’t just impact the student moving.

“It might affect the student as they go through these transitions and try and navigate a new schooling environment,” he said. “But it also affects the school and students within that school who didn't move, as schools themselves try to navigate the churn of students and how that might impact their day-to-day operation and the strategic direction moving forward.”

That is something Aubrey Barnett sees all of the time. She’s an English teacher at Flinn Middle School in Rockford. Its mobility rate is lower than the rest of Rockford, but still more than twicethe state average.

“It was heartbreaking to watch them leave,” she said. “I had several students leave, some as early in the year as October because of some zoning issue.”

She says it affects how they teach. The district keeps the curriculum structured with every quarter the same.

“They want a kid to be able to move between schools, if needed, and not punish that kid by starting a totally repeated curriculum because the next teacher doesn't do the sequencing the same way,” said Barnett.

She gives the district credit for using that strategy. But, it’s not just the curriculum. It impacts her and the other students in her classes.

“Sometimes you really didn't know if they were going to leave or not," said Barnett. "Having to work through those conflicts and relationships and conversations and what their friends are saying and what their social media is saying -- all of that is like just it takes up emotional space and energy in a room."

She says building relationships with students is the foundation of her work as a teacher. That’s even harder when kids are coming in and out of the school. That’s not to mention how hard it is for a student to start fresh in a new place and leave their friends and teachers behind.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.