One in four ASD students switch schools during year

Michelle Theriault Boots

On a recent morning, a mother in a white parka stopped to fill out a stack of paperwork in the office of North Star Elementary on Fireweed Lane.

Her fifth-grader was about to become the newest arrival at a school where students come and go like snow flurries.

Sheryl Morrison, the longtime North Star secretary, suggested the mother wait until Monday, after the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, to bring the boy for his first day.

She explained that North Star offers free breakfast and lunch to all students. The boy could come to an open gym and play basketball before school. It might help him make friends.

The mother said she'd take time from her job at a hair salon to drive him to school herself on Monday. She had moved into an apartment nearby and the boy's old school was just too far away.

"It would be nice to meet the teacher," she said. "He's an awesome kid. I'm sure all parents say that, but he is."

The constant churn of children from school to school is one of the Anchorage School District's most pervasive problems; District-wide, one in every four students won't finish the school year at the same place he started.

At North Star and a handful of other schools where most students live in poverty, the proportion is closer to 50 percent.

"It affects everything," said Daniel Barker, the principal of Fairview Elementary, where the last published transiency rate topped 30 percent.

The children switching schools likely aren't homeless.

That's because those identified as homeless by the school district, meaning they are living doubled-up with family or friends, in shelters, motels or vehicles, can get free transportation to get to their home school, wherever they move. Sometimes that means a gas card for a parent, an AnchorRIDES van or even a taxi. The district pays about $500,000 a year from its general fund for transportation, said ASD spokeswoman Heidi Embley. Federal funding covers the rest.

Last year about 2,270 Anchorage students were homeless. Every single elementary school had at least one homeless student in the 2012-2013 school year.

About 50 percent of those were living doubled-up with other families. Some 826 were in shelters and 354 were living in motels. About 40 were living in vehicles.

The district goes to great lengths to keep homeless kids from changing schools because a stable school environment is their best chance to transcend a chaotic home life.

"Research has shown when a student moves schools it takes them four to six months to get back to where they were," said David Mayo-Kiley, the head of the district's Child In Transition program.

Federal law also guarantees homeless children consistent education, Mayo-Kiley said.

But the much larger group is made up of children who aren't technically homeless but who, for a variety of reasons, migrate from apartment to apartment and school to school.

Those students don't get transportation to their original schools. With district budgets being slashed by $23 million this year, that's unlikely to change.

Changes in residences are often driven by poverty and especially by Anchorage's short supply of affordable rental housing, principals and teachers say.

When rents go up, families often have to leave their school, said Marcus Wilson, the principal at North Star. Recently, apartments being converted to condominiums spurred a small exodus.

Sometimes, it's just the quotidian complications of life that make a person move: A divorce. A separation. An illness.

Permanent fund dividends play a role, often helping families amass enough money to move.

October and November are known as months when the student population can vacillate wildly, said Barker, the Fairview principal. He's seen eight or 10 kids leave in a week.

Departures often happen whiplash-fast.

"A kid came up to me on the playground the other day and said, 'I found out yesterday I'm moving to Fairbanks tomorrow,' " Barker said.

Moving is "a glass of cold water to the face, educationally," he said.

Teachers must spend more time orienting new students to classroom rules and reviewing material. A push toward curriculum standardization has helped with that -- what's happening in third grade math at Williwaw Elementary on a given day is now much more likely to match what's happening at O'Malley Elementary.

But still, "it's constant catch-up mode. Constant crisis mode," said Marcus Wilson, the North Star principal.

So how to fix the problem?

Teachers and administrators say all they can do is make school an oasis of consistency and safety for as long as they have the student.

They buddy up new children with those who have been around the playground for a while.

And they quickly test students for reading and math skills to get them working with the right teachers and aides right away, a system Barker describes as "triage."

But as long as there are people living in poverty or on the edge of it in Anchorage, he said, the problem of student transiency isn't going away.


Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at or 257-4344.