THE BLOG
01/30/2015 09:55 am ET Updated Apr 01, 2015

Choice Is a Privilege

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The first day of school only happens once a year, except in schools like mine, when the first day happens far too frequently for many of our students and teachers.

Our 4th graders are taking the NAEP this year. The survey asked about our mobility rate. The question was multiple choice, with 0 percent being the lowest rate, and "20 percent or more" being the highest rate.

Our school has a 30 percent mobility rate, so we were off the scale.

Mobility is the rate at which students enroll or transfer from a school during the year. Our 30 percent rate means that if a class of 33 students begins the year, only 23 of those original 33 students will be enrolled by the end of the year, with ten transferring out and ten new students will have enrolled to replace them.

Mobility might not sound like a problem, but it is, especially when coupled with crippling poverty. I always taught in schools serving high-poverty populations of 90 percent or more, but I never considered the effects of mobility until I became an administrator. You rarely hear about mobility as a pressing issue, but I contend that it needs to be.

Through my own observations and speaking with our students and teachers I've come to believe mobility is as damaging, if not more-so, than poverty itself. The first twenty days of a school year are so crucial there are multiple books written about the subject. Within the first twenty days teachers must establish classroom routines and expectations that will either make or break the entire school year. From my vantage point as a principal I've witnessed teachers that fail to establish productive classroom norms in the first 20 days, and the students and teacher (and their neighboring colleagues) suffer the entire year for it.

The other day one of our kindergarten teachers exasperatingly told me how frustrating it is when she loses a student or gains a new one after the first twenty days. Strong classroom management can prevent a new student from disrupting the flow of things, but when it happens a couple times a month, it affects all of the relationships in the learning environment.

We want teachers to be caring and develop strong emotional bonds with our students, especially in elementary schools. In schools with high mobility, teachers develop a tough skin and learn not to attach too quickly to any student. Our teachers work damn hard, but it's rough when you invest personal time tutoring and mentoring a child just to see them disappear to another school before the end of the year. This potential for detachment doubles-down on the emotional damage the student is already suffering from having to move schools, meet a new teacher, make new friends, and learn new routines.

In Chicago mobility is directly related to poverty, but the families that are the most mobile seem to be a subset of the poor. Many families rarely move, but a small percentage of them move every year. I know students in 8th grade that have been to seven different schools. On the Southwest side of Chicago you can draw a line down Kedzie Avenue. Schools to the West of it have a mobility rate closer to 5 percent. Schools to the East have a mobility rate hovering around 30 percent.

Despite the fact all the schools serve students that are predominantly from low-income families, there is a very noticeable difference between our communities. I've been told that teachers, students, and parents from other schools don't like to visit ours because the neighborhood looks and feels much different, with many more boarded-up homes and less of a cohesive neighborhood feel to it. Our population is more African-American than the other neighborhoods, too, which undoubtedly plays a part in their perceptions. When families from more affluent neighborhoods visit our school for basketball games the wary looks on their faces makes me wince. Families from schools like ours enter with a less-guarded attitude. The difference is plain to see.

Our families don't move because one of their parents got a new job and the company paid them to relocate. Our families' reasons are numerous and varied, including homelessness, foreclosure, eviction, family breakup, death of a parent, or the avoidance of gangs, and often a combination. This last reason is always the most perplexing to me. I've had families tell me they want to move so their children don't get caught up in the local gangs, but they often move from one high-crime neighborhood to another. I used to be quick to criticize such a decision, until I realized that in a town like Chicago, "choice" isn't a right, but a privilege based on income, class, and skin color. It's illegal to discriminate based on race or income, but how else can you explain such a segregated city in which a school within walking distance from ours doesn't have a single black kid?

We rarely hear about the effects of mobility on the quality of learning in schools like ours, but public neighborhood schools like mine haven't been as much of a priority as schools of "choice" like charters, magnets, and selective-enrollment schools. In Chicago choice isn't a right, it's a privilege.