Revolving School Doors

The high cost of housing means not only homelessness but, for many poor families, frequent moves. Some children switch schools once or more a year — with dire effects on learning.

By Ruth Conniff

A father and son in a temporary housing shelter.

It’s 8 a.m. on a September morning, three weeks into the school year, and a scared-looking second grader is standing in the office at Miles Park School in Cleveland, Ohio, waiting to be enrolled.

“You don’t know your last name, Billy?” the secretary, Ella Kirtly, asks, prompting him gently.

He shakes his head, “I forgot!” he squeaks, sounding panicked. He starts sucking his thumb.

“OK,” says Kirtly. She’s filling out forms, getting as much information from Billy as she can, and assigning him to a classroom. It’s already three weeks into the school year, but late-starters like Billy are common here at Miles Park. It’s a school of mostly low-income students — 90% receive free or reduced lunches, and many come from the local homeless shelters. Turnover is constant.

By the end of this particular day, six children at Miles Park will have moved on or off the rolls. Two, Billy and his sister, were added when they registered this morning. Within hours, four other students officially transferred out. Not counted in the list of transferring students are the kids who signed up but never came to school, or those who simply disappeared without warning and can’t be found. According to school district data, between 19% and 26% of the students at Miles Park move while school is in session. But principal Bill Bauer says that doesn’t come close to telling the story. From one year to the next, most of the school’s population can turn over, he says.

Miles Park and other urban schools are trying to cope with a revolving-door phenomenon created by a host of social ills, including a record shortage of low-cost housing. For many poor families, moving all the time has become a way of life. According to a 1994 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office, one in six third-graders has switched schools at least three times since first grade. The effects on children’s learning are dire.

According to a 1993 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, kids who move frequently are significantly more likely to fail a grade, and to have multiple behavioral problems. “The magnitude of the effect of frequent moves was comparable to that of minority race, parental education, or poverty,” the study’s authors found.

The study also found that poor families are 50 to 100% more likely to move their children frequently (five or six times during their school years) than families that are not poor.


At Miles Park, Principal Bauer has struggled with the many problems faced by students from unstable homes. With the help of a full-time social worker, a community liaison, a homeless shelter liaison, and a cadre of parent volunteers, he is trying to create some constancy amid the chaos of children’s lives.

“You have to look at education more broadly than just teaching kids,” says Bauer. “You have to understand what’s going on in their homes, in their parents’ lives.” This morning he is standing in the hallway talking intently with a mother, who is homeless. Later, he will help find a case of Rid for another mother, who sent her three children to school with lice. He will drive the children with lice home. The school building itself –– which sits in the middle of a deteriorated industrial

neighborhood –– is a physical monument to the triumph of hope over despair. From the outside, the building is not much to look at. The outer walls are a mass of cracking, crumbling concrete. The “play-ground” is just a gravel and asphalt parking lot. The swing sets have been stripped of swings because drug dealers used to hang around in them. But inside, you can see the results of a massive clean-up effort. When Bauer arrived four years ago, he got teachers, parents, and community volunteers to paint the rooms with bright colors. Plants now hang in all the hallways above all the lockers.

The best part of the school is its central courtyard, which used to be nothing but a mass of weeds. Today there is a tinkling little waterfall and a pond, complete with lily pads, goldfish, and a live turtle. Flowers planted along the walls attract monarch butterflies. A weather station allows students to monitor temperature and barometric changes. Bauer organized volunteers to clear the place out, and a local developer, Nathan Zaremba, donated dirt. The Cleveland Botanical Society and the Episcopal church also pitched in to help with the beautification effort.

Maintaining an open, positive environment in the school, both physically and socially, has encouraged many teachers, and even some formerly transient families, to put down roots here, the teachers say. But even the best principal and the most carefully structured programs can’t solve everything. Classrooms at Miles Park are overcrowded, with 30 or more students to a room. Many kids have serious problems –– from lead poisoning to parents who are on drugs. Teaching here is hard enough. It’s even harder when kids constantly move. Inevitably, some teachers feel impatient and beaten down.


The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released a report in April showing that a record 5.3 million poor households cannot find affordable housing. These families –– one-seventh of the nation’s renters, including 4.5 mil- lion children –– live on less than 50% of the median income in their communities. They either pay more than half their income for rent –– or live in severely sub-standard housing –– or both. “These families qualify for HUD assistance,” the report states, “but can’t get it because the Department does not have the funding to help.”

It’s no coincidence that the housing crisis and the problem of student transiency have developed during the same time period, between the 1980s and the 1990s. The private market for affordable housing shrank by 20% between 1983 and 1993, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

HUD officials say a serious rescue effort is needed. “Our report shows that growing numbers of men and women who serve the fast food we eat, who clean the offices where we work, who watch our children in day-care centers, and who perform many other low-wage jobs, aren’t paid enough to house their families in safe and decent conditions,” Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo writes. “With- out housing assistance, they live on the edge of homelessness, struggling desperately each month to put food on the table and keep a roof over their families’ heads.”

For about $780 million in additional spending on housing assistance, plus a large expansion of the low-income housing tax credit, HUD suggests the country could make a significant dent in the housing crisis. Compared to the trouble caused by transiency, it seems like a modest investment.


Transient students are not just an inner-city problem. Even relatively prosperous, mid-sized cities have been noticing high student turnover in recent years.

Residents of Madison, Wisconsin, were surprised to learn recently, from a front-page article in The Wisconsin State Journal, that 850 children in the Madison district were homeless for all or part of the last academic year. Ten years ago, the number was 60.

“You can’t guess which ones are home-less when you look at a class,” says Pat Mooney, a social worker at Madison’s Emerson Elementary School. “They look just like the other kids.” Mooney helps homeless children through the Transition Education Program at Emerson. While they stay in the city’s shelters, elementary-age children come to this school, a pleasant, red- brick building, with a nice playground and a green playing field.

A nine-year-old African-American boy, Greg, his seven-year-old sister, Delilah, and their five-year-old brother, Robert, sit in the room next to Mooney’s, waiting to be placed in classrooms. During their first day at the Transition Education Program, the children are tested in math, reading, and writing. Parents can help themselves to bins of free soap, toothpaste, shampoo, and deodorant (“things the shelters don’t provide,” program teacher Bobbie Toney says), as well as a closet full of donated clothes. When the children start school, they will get a pack of free school supplies.

“Some people are under the impression that all kids come in with holes,” Toney says. “But basically they run the gamut like any kids. Some are behind, and some are very high-functioning.”

Greg and his siblings turn out to be high-scorers, placing well within their grade level on the standardized tests.

Greg, a chubby boy wearing a green- striped shirt, jeans, and sandals, has been to three Madison-area schools in four years. He’s missed a month of his fourth- grade year while his mom was incarcerated.

I ask why he’s changing schools. “Cause we don’t have a house,” he says. He doesn’t know where they might move next.

Did they say you might be staying at this school, I ask.

“No, they did not,” he says, sighing. “I kinda wanna really go home,” he adds, squirming.

Where’s home?

“The shelter.”

So that’s temporary. “Yes, it is,” he says, stretching the words out pointedly.

I ask him how he likes Emerson. “It’s all right,” he says, but if he could choose, he would go back to the school he attended in first and second-grade.

Greg especially liked that school. “I wrote a nine-chapter story in the second-grade,” he tells me. “Horror — with ghosts and demons and stuff.” He gets animated talking about it.

He tells me about the story he’s writing now. It’s about a magic tree. An Indian boy discovers the tree, which has “extra everything,” and it gives him special hunting powers. But in order to keep his powers, the tree tells him, he has to plant another magic tree, and go to the forest everyday to take care of it. Norma Heerem, Greg’s new fourth-grade teacher, has just found out she’ll be getting a new student in her class. “All I know about him is his name is Greg,” she says.

“They’re not good students,” she says, commenting generally on the kids she gets from the Transition Education Program. “They’re usually quiet. They view themselves as temporary, and that has a big effect on how involved they get in class.”

It makes sense that students and teachers alike develop a kind of fatalistic detachment when they know they will only be together for a short time. But it seems a shame that Greg’s new teacher doesn’t know anything about his nine-chapter story, now lost to the world.

Several things are obvious about Greg: he is bright and talented; he is bitter about his situation; and he is going to have a hell of a time, under current circumstances, focusing on developing his skills. But now is the time when someone could reach him.

A 1990 study conducted in Prince George’s County, Maryland, found that African-American boys in the first and second grades performed as well as their peers on standardized math and reading tests. But by the fourth grade, their scores took a steep drop. Nationwide, fourth-grade reading scores for African-American boys lag behind all other groups. A 1997 article in Parenting magazine attributed these statistics to “an undercurrent of fear and tension” that develops between white teachers and young black males as the boys’ mature, as well as a general societal expectation that black boys will do poorly in school and get into trouble.

Other studies, including the Kids Mobility Project, find that minority kids are much more likely to move frequently than white kids, which, combined with other negative factors, can have a disastrous effect on their learning.

Mooney shows me mobility statistics for the mostly white Madison school district, broken down by ethnic group. Black students move around five times as much as whites. American Indians have the second-highest mobility factor, more than three times that of whites.

“You can imagine the impact on minority achievement is huge,” says Mooney. “But no one pays attention to that.”


Standing behind the desk in his cluttered office at Miles Park, principal Bau- er tugs on a continuous printout of transfers in and out of the school, and lets the pages unfold, cascading to the floor.

“What’s the answer in urban education?” he asks me. “The answer is: It takes more than a school to fix it. You have to think about welfare reform, how they’re cutting people off, and so they’re pairing up in homes now because they can’t afford the rent.”

Bauer doesn’t have much to say about how things might change now that the mayor has seized control of the schools.

“But let me ask you this: Would that playground outside exist in a suburb in Michigan? Look at the deplorable housing and ask, who’s responsible for the housing code? Look at the sidewalks, which are nonexistent, where the kids have to walk to school each day. Who’s in charge of that? The city. Now they’re taking charge of the schools? Who’s in charge of drug dealing? Who’s responsible if the kids move when they are getting welfare –– of keeping track of their residence?”

Bauer’s point is clear: The schools can’t do it all. To begin with, children need a stable place to call home.

Ruth Conniff is the Washington Editor of The Progressive. Some of the children’s names have been changed. The article is condensed from the November 1998 issue of The Progressive, 409 E. Main St., Madison, WI 53703. Reprinted with permission.