Creating stability for kids who change schools frequently

Tiffany Gruen
Tiffany Gruen

When I worked as an elementary teacher in Covington, we received new students all the time. We were a high-mobility school district — our students and their families often changed schools. New students typically arrived with little to no warning and we did our very best to make families feel welcome while also learning how best to meet the needs of the students.

I received an email from a former colleague, Mrs. Goodenough, about one such student. The email was quick and to the point: “Sasha didn’t know she was moving until very recently. She might be nervous. Tell her I said, ‘hi’ and let me know if either of you needs anything.”

On her very first day, I shook this little girl’s hand, introduced myself and simply said “Mrs. Goodenough wanted me to tell you ‘hi.’ She used to teach in the room right next to mine. Do you want me to send a message back to her?” Sasha beamed and she didn’t miss a beat finding her place in our school community. Behind the scenes, I could reach out to Mrs. Goodenough to determine academically what I could do to best support this student. That connection was invaluable in meeting Sasha’s needs from the start of her transition into a new learning environment.

A group of teachers in Northern Kentucky’s most transient communities are trying to make Sasha’s experience more common. Working as the River City Project (RCP), we are trying to find ways to communicate consistently across various districts to help transient students. After a year of research and planning we now have a pilot project underway.

A sense of stability is often woven into the educational experience of students who attend one elementary school. Teachers communicate between grade levels to best meet student needs. Relationships with families are already established through teaching siblings or cousins. Counselors and administrators see the whole picture of the child from kindergarten through fifth grade and communicate this to the teachers year after year.

The same cannot always be said for high-mobility students. Students transitioning to a new school often come with a very small paper trail. Does this student wear glasses? No idea. Does this student need food for the weekend? No clue. We ask, but prying answers from a nervous six year old isn’t so easy.

If a student transfers within a district, teachers often work to locate the previous teacher. However, if a student moves into a neighboring district, it can be difficult to determine who was the previous teacher. One teacher I know lost eight students and gained seven more between August and December of this school year. Trying to sort out on her own the transfer schools of her original students and the previous schools of her new students is a near impossible feat.

We can’t prevent a child from moving, but we can make the experience smoother simply by connecting teachers.

For the past year, the RCP has gathered teacher perception data, interviewed enrollment staff, collaborated across districts and held focus groups at teaching conferences to create a communication tool that helps teachers meet the needs of high-mobility students. Through the pilot project we hope to learn soon how well it is working but feel that already the work is shining a brighter light on the needs of these students, as well as connecting districts with a common cause.

What is the hope of the River City Project?

Sasha’s experience, replicated for every student in transition. Sasha was fortunate — her teachers just happened to know each other and were able to create that sense of stability immediately at her new school. All kids deserve that same level of communication.

Tiffany Gruen is a second grade teacher at Dorothy Howell Elementary in Elsmere. She is a member of the River City Project, the Resilient and Ready by Design Institute, a Core Advocate with Student Achievement Partners and a Hope Street Group Kentucky State Teacher Fellow.