Student Mobility: A Silent Threat to Student Success

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Estimates are that roughly 6.5 million students change schools each year. Some of these students will change schools multiple times. Unfortunately, those students who transition most frequently from one school to another disproportionately live in families that are poor and minorities.

Schools and school districts carefully prepare and support students as they make planned transitions from one school to the next within a system, such as from elementary to middle school and middle school to high school. We know that moving from one school to another, even when planned and supported can be traumatic for students. So, we prepare for and monitor the process carefully. We arrange visits and orientation well in advance. Entry to the new school is orchestrated to be smooth and information about students and their needs is provided to receiving staff to prepare them to move students forward with as little disruption as practical.

However, for students who move from one school to another during the year, such planning and supports are rarely available. Yet, the trauma and confusion associated with changing schools are felt no less intensely. In fact, the intensity often is greater given that friends are left behind, the new neighborhood may not be familiar, and little information about the student may be available to educators to inform them about the student’s needs and strengths.

Researchers have calculated that students who transfer schools four or more times by sixth grade have an average achievement equal to a grade behind their peers. Estimates are that each transition sacrifices three months of reading and math achievement. Frequently transferring students tend to engage in more at-risk behaviors than age-mates. They are more likely to be held back a grade. They are also more likely to drop out of school before graduation and, if they graduate, they are less likely to pursue post-high school education.

Obviously, such a situation is intolerable. Educators alone can do little to change the factors that often cause student mobility. Inability to pay rent, loss of job, family stresses and break-ups, adult mental health challenges, and other factors have roots in social and economic conditions that are complex and often intractable. Yet, there are several steps we can take to help students who face school transitions do so successfully.

Offering flexibility in school attendance area requirements can also be helpful to families that move locally but may cross school attendance boundaries. Preventing the need to make a transition can be the most effective prevention step we can take.

When a transition is inevitable, we can quickly reach out to the sending school to learn as much as possible about the student, including their academic achievement profile, social strengths and struggles, any special programs or supports needed, and other information that might support a successful transition. Granted, sending schools are not always prompt in sending records for transitioning students, but personal contacts and reach-outs can often hasten the process and glean important informal information. This information needs to be in the possession of receiving teachers before the student arrives, if possible.

We can also take steps to see that these students feel welcome. For example, the student might be formally introduced and welcomed to their new class. Information and work products posted by the class should include the new student’s work as soon as possible. Posted information and activities such as birthdays, weekly class leaders, etc. should feature the student as soon as they can be integrated so these students feel included and connected.

We can encourage connections and friendship with other students. Peer mentor programs can assist in making this process intentional and consistent. However, informal introductions to students who might share interests and become friends can also help. Further, we can encourage and arrange for new students to join school clubs and activities that can facilitate friendships and foster social inclusion.

Setting up an adult mentoring program can be an effective way to smooth the transition and identify emerging issues before they require formal intervention. For some students, having a positive, stable, caring adult checking in with them regularly may be exactly what they need to succeed.

We may not be able to control the frequency of school transitions for students, but there is much we can do to help them to survive and succeed when a change of school is unavoidable.

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