School Is Hard for Mobile Students. These Districts Want to Help.


Being the new kid in school is never easy.

Students who move, especially during the middle of the academic year, must adapt to a lot: new classes, new textbooks, even a new social scene. And that kind of disruption can sometimes cause big academic delays.

In Chelsea, Mass.—a mostly working-class suburban city just across the Mystic River from Boston—high student mobility used to be a challenge without a clear solution. But then the district formed an unusual partnership with its neighbors to develop curriculum in tandem and make moving a bit easier.

The Five District Partnership, which includes Chelsea, was formed in 2012. But there’s new interest in the model as schools and communities suddenly face big changes in enrollment as a result of the pandemic—reasons its proponents could never have predicted.

Put simply, the pandemic seems to be leading a large number of students to change schools. Sometimes that’s because parents suffered job losses or took on new work that required relocating to different school zones or districts (though experts are still analyzing data and waiting to see the extent of such trends). Virtual learning may have allowed some of those students to stay connected to their old schools and districts, but the steady reopening of in-person classes, coupled with the upcoming end of the CDC’s eviction moratorium, could contribute to a fall with much more movement.

And those changes can disrupt student learning. Maybe a student moves to a school that has already covered, say, fractions, but their previous school hadn’t taught those yet. “Then you’re at a loss,” says Cove Davis, the executive administrator for the Five District Partnership. “That was the original idea behind the partnership. To try to get these five cities that are wound in and out of each other to have a consistent scope and sequence.”

Not all mobility is bad. Sometimes kids move to be closer to family, or because a parent got a better job, says Amy Ellen Schwartz, professor of economics and public administration at Syracuse University. She distinguishes between mobile students generally and students facing specific challenges, like housing instability. Kids who move because a family member lost a job or couldn’t make rent, especially those who move multiple times, also often face academic delays and have more trouble graduating high school.

And the pandemic likely put more students in that difficult position. Mass job losses last year placed intense economic pressure on working households, and while the national eviction moratorium likely slowed the churn of families relocating, it couldn’t stop it outright. The moratorium ends as a federal policy on June 30, stripping away protections that have kept potentially thousands of families across the country in their homes.

“We don’t have data on the actual rates of mobility,” says Chad d’Entremont, executive director of the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy. “We are beginning to document that many students have become disconnected from the educational system during the pandemic… and many of them have probably become mobile and are moving to different communities and schools.”

A Stable Partnership

The five cities that make up the Massachusetts partnership include Chelsea, Everett, Malden, Revere and Winthrop. Geographically small, but dense, the districts wind their way along the riverfront and coastline just north of Boston. And student mobility is nothing new here.

In 2012, district leaders identified a critical challenge teachers were facing: Over the course of their school careers, thousands of students were moving between cities and having to adjust to a new school environment.

“You had a lot of housing instability,” says Davis. Because the cities are in such close proximity, even nearby family support for students who lost housing might actually be in a totally different district.

“It’s not like kids are moving from Boston to Chicago to LA and then back again,” says Schwartz. “Kids for whom housing instability is a problem, many of them are moving around in the same urban area.”

Home to more affordable neighborhoods and resettlement services for migrant communities, Chelsea also became a kind of jumping off point, says Davis. Working families and recent immigrants could start there and then eventually settle in one of the other suburban cities. Many educators in Chelsea felt they were doing good work with students, but when those learners relocated, adapting to a new environment sometimes hurt their progress.

So when the state implemented Common Core standards nearly a decade ago, the five superintendents decided to align their curriculum and teach units at roughly the same time, in the same order and with many of the same materials. The partnership has a monthly meeting for curriculum developers and another for superintendents. Davis says school leaders often give each other a heads-up when they know a student is changing districts.

“We’re figuring out ways to support each other,” says Mathew Costa, director of STEM disciplines at Revere Public Schools. In 2020, just over 12 percent of the district’s students were considered mobile.

“It’s something that we’ve long recognized. That’s an important part of our work…thinking about the different classroom structures and trying to help students feel connected and supported and cared for,” he says.

In some ways, the Five District Partnership had an easier onboarding than what districts might experience if they try to replicate the program today. The introduction of Common Core standards in 2012 meant that school leaders were already reshaping their curricula, and open to more ambitious changes, when they started to collaborate. The five original superintendents had also already been in close contact for years.

On the other hand, partnerships between schools and communities in response to the challenges of the pandemic are on the rise, says Gislene Tasayco, senior specialist with the Education and Expanded Learning team at the National League of Cities. She has observed that school leaders are increasingly taking a holistic, regional approach to reengaging students after a year of challenges.

D’Entremont, at the Rennie Center, agrees. “Historically, schools tended to operate in isolation. They’re beginning to realize that we’re all interconnected. If a student moves from one school to another, from one city to another… we need to be able to transfer that knowledge and information.”

Of course, student mobility is only the first step of an ongoing effort by schools to keep students from falling behind or dropping out as they begin to reopen to in-person learning en masse this fall. But helping ease the students’ transitions, especially for the housing insecure, is critical.

“We have to remind them that there is a community behind them willing to support them,” says Tasayco.



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