Friday, November 06, 2009


I had a good conversation this week with someone who works at one of our major feeder high schools. It's in a low-income district, and since it's close by, we get tremendous numbers of its graduates.

We were talking about college preparation, and the various options and obstacles. In reference to a program that seems like it should work, but somehow doesn't, she mentioned that so many students move during the course of a year that it's not unusual for a majority of a class to turn over during the year. When students bounce from town to town -- it sounds like most of the moves are relatively local -- it's hard for any single program to gain serious traction, no matter how well-run it might be.

That seemed hard to accept, so I asked around on campus for the last few days to see if others had heard or seen the same thing. They had. Apparently, one of the features of our local low-income community is extremely high transience.

In a way, that helped me understand some things I'd noticed recently on campus. Last year we started putting chairs in unused parts of hallways for students to use; they've been full almost without interruption, since literally before they were unwrapped. The library is standing-room-only. The outdoor benches are often full, even on cold days, and even without smokers. Although the college was built for commuter students, some students are starting to use it as a home away from home. If the regular home is precarious, that makes sense.

The stereotype of urban poverty is of an entrenched underclass that gets stuck in place. This seems to be the exact opposite; these students may be a lot of things, but 'entrenched' isn't one of them. They move a lot.

From the high school's perspective, constant churn in the student body makes meaningful educational interventions incredibly hard to sustain, since all that turnover defeats the sustained focus you need to make real progress. (In the era of mandatory statewide tests, this has direct consequences for the schools.) It's hard to form bonds with teachers or counselors when you switch schools twice a year.

From the students' perspective, of course, it's a disaster. I imagine that it's driven by delicate family situations and shaky economics, each of which brings issues of its own. And moving, in itself, is a major hassle.

I don't really have an easy solution for this. We don't have the money, land, or political will to build dorms. And even if we did, they wouldn't help the K-12 students. But I'm starting to appreciate the new chairs a little more.