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On the move

High student mobility rates a challenge for schools in OKC and Tulsa

The Frontier
Wide-eyed and wearing a backpack too large for his nine-year-old frame, Trevor walked into the office at Thelma Parks Elementary in northeast Oklahoma City ready for another first day of school. It was mid-November, and while most of the other students were settled into classroom routines and already looking forward to the coming winter break, Trevor was enrolling in his fourth new school in four months.

“You knew this kid probably needed a lot to catch up, but you also knew we might only have this child for a few weeks,” said Michelle Lewis, the school’s principal.

A new student arriving or leaving midyear is a common reality at Thelma Parks, where 41 percent of students during the 2018-19 school year were not enrolled for the entire year.

Across Oklahoma City, an average of one in three students do not stay at the same school for the entire year, according to enrollment data analyzed by The Frontier and The Curbside Chronicle.
Images: Ben Felder, The Frontier

Michelle Lewis, principal of Thelma Parks Elementary in Oklahoma City, said it's common to see students come and go throughout the school year.
Both Oklahoma City and Tulsa school districts serve many students who face the types of challenges that lead to high mobility rates — concentrated poverty, declines in affordable housing, and unstable transportation.

Sometimes a midyear move is intentional, like when a family receives a tax refund in April and finally has enough to put down a deposit on a better apartment.

But other times the move is abrupt and caused by a traumatic incident, including an eviction, of which both Oklahoma City and Tulsa have some of the highest rates in the nation.

“I think our highest driver of mobility and housing instability is the eviction crisis,” said Becky Gligo, Tulsa’s housing policy director.

“Over 14,000 Tulsans were evicted in 2019. That’s a huge number for our population.”
Both cities not only have some of the highest eviction rates in the nation, but also have high amounts of foster care placements, rising family homelessness and other situations that can lead to high mobility.

“An undesired move is a distressing situation and unstable housing has a negative impact on mental health,” said Gregory Shinn, associate director and chief housing officer at Mental Health Association Oklahoma.

“Housing’s impact on a child’s ability to learn and concentrate in school is significant.”
Various studies have found it hard to isolate the impact of mobility on a student’s academic performance because mobility is often caused by other factors that would also negatively impact a student.

But there is evidence that highly mobile students rarely find themselves moving into a high-quality school, at least based on academic metrics, and a large number of students entering a school midyear can lead to increased classroom disruptions, according to the National Education Policy Center.

While student mobility is already a challenge in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to exacerbate the problem even further.

Throughout the 2019-2020 school year, Tulsa Public Schools identified about 1,200 students experiencing homelessness, said Kendall Huerta, the homeless education coordinator for the district.

In Oklahoma City, more than 3,000 students were identified as homeless last year.

But because Tulsa and Oklahoma City schools started the first few months of the semester in distance learning mode because of the COVID-19 pandemic, those students have been harder to pinpoint.

Families experiencing homelessness often visit the district’s enrollment center to pick up supplies, such as uniforms. But the center has been closed because of the pandemic.  

Families are gradually starting to come forward and identify themselves, but now they have different needs, such as hygiene products, Huerta said.

“We know they’re out there and we know they’re coming forward,” she said. “We’re trying to track everyone down.”

Teachers already had challenges identifying mobile children when they were in the classroom, but distance learning has exacerbated it, Huerta said.

Teachers now keep an eye out for students through their computer screens, watching to see if a child’s environment often changes.

“It’s just easier when you’re in person,” Huerta said. “I just think it’s going to be slower this year to find families.”

But even when students return to class, which has already started in Oklahoma City, officials expect the mobility rate to increase.

“I’m terrified about what (COVID-19) is going to do to our families who are on the edge of housing stability,” said Kathy Brown, the homeless coordinator for Oklahoma City Public Schools.

Rebecca King, a parent of two boys who attended the same elementary school in Oklahoma City the past three years, had to move her children into a new district this fall.

“My job just went away,” King said with a snap of her finger, referring to her hotel job that ended once the pandemic arrived.

King is working again at a downtown Oklahoma City hotel, but the temporary loss in income forced her to move in with a relative in a different district.

“I’d love for my boys to stay at their school, we liked it,” King said. “It just didn’t work out.”

Many of the causes of mobility are beyond a school’s control but there is evidence that increased student support services can lead to families working harder to stay within a specific school boundary.

The Oklahoma City district’s Telstar Elementary had long been home to one of the highest mobility rates in the city with more than 70 percent of students leaving from year-to-year.

In 2014, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Oklahoma County launched an afterschool program at Telstar, helping students with homework and providing a safe space to hangout.

The next year, Telstar’s mobility rate dropped to 42 percent.

“When you put resources around kids it can help offset some of that (mobility),” said Teena Belcik, President and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Oklahoma County, who credited the afterschool program as one of the contributing factors for the decrease in mobility rates.

“We heard stories of parents who may have got a job in another city and were going to move, but made the decision to stay in Telstar.”

Telstar closed in 2019 as part of the district’s school consolidation plan.

While that closure may have hurt stability gains at Telstar, district officials believe the consolidation plan will improve mobility rates across the district. Elementary schools with the lowest enrollment were closed and other schools had their attendance boundaries increase in size.
Images: Ben Felder, The Frontier

Oklahoma City Public School's executive director of equity and innovation, Marsha Herron, believes recent systemic changes in the district will improve student mobility rates.
“The larger those boundaries are the less likely you are to move outside the feeder pattern,”said Marsha Herron, the executive director of equity and innovation for the Oklahoma City school district.

“We also have a more unified curriculum and a tracking system that will help maintain some consistency for students who may move.”

A relatively new student information system is also helping the district keep track of students and ensure the support services they need don’t end because they change schools, Herron said.

While changing schools midyear can be challenging for students now having to catch up in a new class, Herron said the lost relationships and routine can have an equally negative impact.

“They also forfeit the feeling of safety, leading to increased levels of frustration and psychological distress,” Herron said. “Children who must integrate themselves into new school situations wear their stress like bricks in their backpacks. Adapting to new situations does not come easily to adults and is more than likely amplified in children.

“When all of these factors converge on our students, they can experience impediments in their learning and long-term achievement.”
This story is part of a collaborative project by The Frontier and Curbside Chronicle. A copy of this story can also be found in the November issue of Curbside Chronicle, which is sold at numerous intersections across Oklahoma City.

This project is funded through a grant by Inasmuch Foundation and facilitated by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University.

Web design and illustrations by Half Design.

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