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Staying in school

Eight-year-old Garrett and 9-year-old Austin have moved five times with their mother and attended two different schools in the Medford School District since their parents separated last February.

Through most of the turmoil, Jackson Elementary School has been the only familiar part of their lives, said their mother, Marci Fredrickson, who has been looking for a job so she and the boys can find their own place.

"It's hard when you don't know where you're going to be in a week," Fredrickson said.

Garrett, a second-grader, receives counseling at Jackson for separation anxiety and to help restore his focus on school, and Austin, a third-grader, can't wait to go to school because it gives him a sense of security, Fredrickson said.

"Garrett would just sit in class and do nothing," she said. "He would tell his teacher he was too overwhelmed."

Garrett and Austin represent a major challenge for public schools: providing a sense of stability and a seamless education to children whose lives are frequently uprooted. That challenge has compounded as the recession has put more and more parents out of jobs, said Principal Tom Ettel.

Jackson Elementary, temporarily housed between the old naval base on Ross Lane and McLoughlin Middle School in Medford, has always had one of the highest student turnover rates in the Medford district, mostly because of its high population in poverty.

This year, only seven out of 42 sixth-graders began attending Jackson as kindergartners.

And the situation has worsened.

Only about 80 percent of the students who enrolled at the beginning of the year now remain. Last year, it was 85 percent. That number doesn't account for students who leave and come back in between the three math assessment dates throughout the school year, the points at which the principal counts how many students withdrew from the previous assessment.

The most dramatic example of the turnover is Jackson teacher Jeff Kinsella's second-grade class, which has dwindled from 25 to 16 students since December. Eleven of the students withdrew, and four new students enrolled during that period.

"This is the worst in 12 years," Kinsella said. "Usually, I lose only three or four kids."

Four of the students left because they lived outside the school attendance zone, and their parents could no longer drive them to school. Some resulted from changes in child custody, but most were the result of the recession, Kinsella said.

Whenever a new student joins the class, Kinsella has to teach the classroom rules and procedures again and help the student catch up with his or her peers.

"Academically, it's hard to move back and forth," Kinsella said. "Jackson has special programs to meet its students' needs, but if they go to another school, it may not be as finite as we are."

During their moves, Fredrickson and her sons slept on sofas in friends' houses. While moving to Fredrickson's mom's house, the boys were enrolled in Kennedy Elementary School in Medford for only two days before the family moved again.

"It's been crazy," she said. "It's really, really been hard on these boys."

Jackson has crafted programs to help accelerate the acclimation period for new students.

Students are assessed in math and reading skills when they enroll to ensure they're placed in the right class and given the appropriate academic support. New students also are paired up with "a buddy," a fellow student who is a good example and can show them the ropes, Ettel said.

"A move is a stressful thing for a kid," Ettel said. The 11-year principal knows what it's like. As a child growing up in Eugene, he moved three times between kindergarten and third grade.

"It's a lot harder for some than others," he said. "Some of them feel a sense of rejection because they've moved and lost their friends and social network. We encourage them to jump in and get involved in activities."

Because 87 percent of the school's some 300 students qualify for free or reduced lunch, the school receives about $200,000 per year in Title I federal funds to help give extra support to students in poverty with small group instruction and additional teaching assistants.

"That's why the money is there to offset the mobility and poverty issues, so kids have a better shot at succeeding," Ettel said.

The Medford district pays for all of its seven Title I campuses to provide full-day kindergarten, while campuses with wealthier populations have half-day kindergarten.

The federal government expects schools to bring all of their students up to benchmarks in reading and math regardless of how long the student has been on campus. A student who has been at the campus for three months isn't looked at differently from a student who has been at the campus since kindergarten.

"If the federal government measured where students are academically when they start a new campus and how those same students progress from that point, that would be a more accurate reflection of the school's efforts," Ettel said.

One misconception is that immigrant and migrant children are the largest driver in the high mobility rate, Ettel said. That's not the case at Jackson, he said.

English as a Second Language classes with high Hispanic populations generally have a lower student turnover rate than other classes, Ettel said.

For example, the first-grade ESL class lost three students this year, compared to the regular first-grade class, which lost seven pupils.

ESL students also have a better attendance rate than their counterparts, he said.

The first-grade ESL class has a 95.6 percent attendance rate compared to the regular first-grade class, which has a 91.2 percent attendance rate.

"That kind of goes against what some people would normally think of in this community," Ettel said.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.

Students from Jackson Elementary School teacher Jeff Kinsella’s second-grade class mug for the camera as they head out for recess Thursday. Kinsella’s class, which started the school year with 25 students and now is at 16, is an example of the turnover in student population that presents a challenge for districts trying to provide a stable and seamless education. - Jim Craven