Moving costs

Moving Costs: Why this was the story we needed to tell

Good morning!

By now I hope many of you have had a chance to read the five-part Moving Costs series we published this week with Bridge Magazine about the causes and consequences of students frequently changing schools in Detroit.

The series had been in the works for over a year as Bridge’s Chastity Pratt Dawsey and I tried to gather the research, find the right school to feature, and get to know the students and staff there. It’s been a long process, but one I hope will lead to productive conversations about potential solutions.

The idea for the stories emerged when I first started covering schools in Detroit and noticed many parents I talked to had a list — a long list of schools their children had attended, and a long list of reasons why they left one for another. “That school had three principals in two years,” they’d tell me. Or, “my daughter didn’t have a certified math teacher all year.” Or, “my son was being bullied.”

At the same time, as I visited schools, I heard heartbreaking stories of students who came for a while, then vanished. I heard of turmoil in classrooms as new students arrived, forcing teachers to scrap a day’s lessons while they scrambled to find a desk and a textbook for a shell-shocked new arrival.

This was a story well known to educators in Detroit, but one I rarely heard discussed by policymakers or on the campaign trail. Yet the research on enrollment instability was clear: it drives down test scores. It exacerbates behavioral problems. It fuels drop out rates — and not just for students who are on the move, but also for their classmates who stay. It seemed like a major reason why it's so difficult to fix Detroit's schools. 

So last year I approached Bridge, one of our partners in the Detroit Journalism Cooperative, about collaborating on a deep look at the issue. We decided to zero in on one classroom in one school and tell the stories of the students in that class.

The result is the five stories Chalkbeat and Bridge published Tuesday. We focused on an eighth-grade class at Bethune Elementary-Middle School, where the 31 students had collectively attended 128 schools on their path to eighth grade — an average of more than four schools each. Five of the students had cycled through more than seven schools and, notably, a third of these students arrived at Bethune in the 8th grade. That means they had changed schools just months before they expected to change again to start high school.

We got to know those students, their parents, and their teachers. We analyzed data and talked to experts to understand the extent and the impact of the problem. And when we wanted to better understand what drove parents to change schools, we used a text-messaging platform to survey 100 Detroit parents about how often they’d changed schools, and why. We also provided a few solutions that could at least ease the impact of so much turmoil.

We had expected to find housing issues or family upheaval at the center of frequent student moves but we soon discovered something else was going on. Overwhelmingly, we learned, families changed schools because they could. They wanted something better for their children. Most Detroit schools are struggling and many Detroit parents aren't happy with what's happening at their child's school. And Michigan's choice policies have created lots of alternatives for parents. So they leave. And if they're not happy in the next school, they leave again.

If you haven’t had a chance to read these stories yet, please take a look and share them with parents, educators, and policymakers. We want to keep the conversation going about this issue, so keep a look out for public events and discussions in coming months. And please let us know what you think — and send us your own experiences with this issue, or your thoughts about solutions. And thanks for reading!  

— Erin Einhorn, Detroit Bureau Chief

The students of homeroom 8B at Bethune Elementary-Middle School at their 8th-grade graduation ceremony. Eleven of 31 students didn't enroll in the school until eighth grade.