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Taking On Student Mobility: Program Uses Cash, Incentives to Keep Kids in Same School

Susan Notes: I have long felt that the biggest boost to the academic success of children living in poverty would be raising the family income. Here's a start.

FLINT - Things were looking bleak for Carrie Moore and her five children.

For years the single mom had struggled to pay her bills and provide a quality home for her family that was near the school she loved - Bryant Elementary.

But their living conditions were poor. The house, with its barred windows and dilapidated appearance, was unsafe and too small for the large family. An inoperative gas line meant the family soon would have no heat as the cool fall nights approached.

Moore prayed for help and it came in the form of a new Scholars program offered by the Flint School District and the Family Independence Agency. The program is designed to address the extraordinarily high rate at which Flint students move, disrupting their studies.

The program deals with the issue in an unusual way. To be involved, Moore and other parents had to sign a letter agreeing to keep their children in the same school for two consecutive years. In return, the FIA pays $100 a month toward a family's rent.

Through the FIA's assistance, Moore was able to move into a larger home Sept. 30 with much better living conditions. She also made arrangements with the district to have her children continue attending Bryant.

"I kept the faith and believed all things were possible," Moore said. "Through prayer, I feel blessed to have this program in my life and my children's lives. It's not every day you have a program that helps you get out of a bind."

The FIA Scholars program started this school year in second-grade classrooms at two Flint elementary schools - Bryant and Washington. Moore's daughter, Tiaira Mayes, 7, is in Mercy Lavalais's second-grade Scholars class at Bryant.

Last year, 53 percent of Bryant students and 46 percent of Washington youth moved in and out of the schools. Flint's 26 elementary schools had a 39 percent average mobility rate last year.

Theresa VanSteenburg is teaching the Scholars class at Washington and knows the negative impact mobility can have. She once taught in a class that saw a turnover of 15 students during the school year.

"It's frustrating because you know it's not in the best interest of the kids," VanSteenburg said. "When you see a child who has moved 10 times before the third grade, you know they've missed something along the way."

VanSteenburg's class has 25 students; the Scholars class at Bryant has 29 second-graders.

Here's how the program works:

Parents volunteer to have their children in the class and sign a commitment letter saying their child will stay in the same school for the next two years and will have no more than three absences per 10-week marking period, except for illness. Parents must get their children to school on time every day, meet with the teacher and visit the classroom regularly and pay their rent on time.

FIA, which has offices set up at Washington and Bryant, agrees to pay $100 a month in rent money to the landlords of the families of the second-graders. The department also assists the families with their needs, such as buying school supplies and school uniforms.

Participating landlords sign a commitment letter saying they will not increase rent for the two-year period and will keep their properties in good condition.

The school district promises to have the same teachers instruct students this year and next.

Denise Chambers, Genesee County FIA director, said she got the idea for the Scholars program after reading a Flint Journal series on the mobility problem last school year. The Journal's 10-part series focused on a fourth-grade classroom at Bryant.

The Scholars program is really a study to show the impact mobility has on a class.

The district will regularly test the second-graders and compare that data to the test scores of second-graders not in the program. The belief is that, over time the youth who stay put will perform better, Chambers said.

"As educators, we always complain, 'If kids could just stay in one place we could make a difference,'" said Washington Elementary Principal Maria Hope. "Now with this program, we have a format to test that theory."

If the program works, Chambers hopes it can be expanded.

In the first five weeks of the school year, the pilot classes seem to be going well. So far, VanSteenburg's class at Washington has not lost any students.

The Bryant class got off to a shaky start due to some scheduling issues, which since have been ironed out. The class started with 30 students and now has 29, said Bryant Principal Grant Whitehead.

Whitehead said FIA also is helping the entire school by purchasing two school uniforms for each of the school's 630 students. The agency also has provided supplies, shoes and coats for the children.

"We want to be a part of Bryant," said FIA staff member Maria Ybarra, who is stationed at Bryant. "We help the children get well fed, housed, clothed and medically taken care of so when they come to the school door to learn, they are prepared."


About the program
What is scholars? A program started by the state Family Independence Agency this fall in two second-grade classes at Washington and Bryant elementary schools. It's designed to address the student mobility problem in the Flint School District.

what is mobility? It's common for some Flint students to move repeatedly from home to home and school to school during the year. Last year, Flint's elementary schools had a 39 percent average mobility rate. That's not only disruptive to the classroom, but often causes highly mobile children to fall behind academically.

Too much moving

Here are the five elementary schools that had the highest mobility in the 2003-04 school year:

1. Stewart 72 percent

2. Wilkins 55 percent

3. Bryant 53 percent

4. King 52 percent

5. Carpenter Road 51 percent

9. Washington 46 percent

Source: Flint School District

— Matt Bach
Flint Journal


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