Teachers lead team approach to dealing with student churn
A teacher today has more responsibilities than writing lesson plans, teaching the material, grading assignments and meeting with parents.
With the high student "churn rate" -- the number of students who move in and out of school during a school year -- a growing part of a teacher's job is to serve as welcomer-in-chief, working to help a youngster acclimate to a new learning environment filled with strange faces and a sometimes different curriculum.
While teachers aren't prone to bemoaning the difficulties, student transiency levels can become an elephant in any classroom. The numbers of students arriving or leaving during the school year averages 11 percent in Berkshire County and 9.9 percent in the state.
As the churn rate climbs, the educational process for all students can be disrupted, sometimes for extended periods. Teachers interviewed by The Eagle agreed that, unlike in the past, they rely on a team concept, using reading and math assessment specialists, adjustment counselors and others -- including college-age mentors and student peers -- to manage one transition after another throughout the school year.
A new student definitely changes the dynamics of a classroom, said Michael Schaeffer, who teaches math in Grades 6 and 7 at Brayton Elementary School in North Adams.
Having taught in an urban district in Baltimore, Schaeffer said the churn rate in his classes in North Adams is roughly the same as in his previous district, perhaps higher. Of the 80 students he has taught this school year, 13 have arrived since the start of classes last fall.
The first challenge, he said, is to assess where a new student might fit into the classroom, and where he or she fits onto the scale academically and behaviorally. This can be difficult when academic records or incident reports don't arrive quickly from a former school, Schaeffer said.
Additionally, he said he's encountered some disruptive behavior involving incoming students. Often, the root cause is something he or other staff members discovered over time.
"Sometimes, the parents also are not forthcoming, or forget to inform us [about past behavioral issues]" or about physical issues, such as whether the student needs to wear glasses to read, Schaeffer said.
In some cases, after a new student has been in class for a week, an old issue resurfaces, he said, adding: "For instance, no one has told us he was kicked out of his old school or why."
Every decision a classroom teacher makes concerning a new student is dependent on advance knowledge, he said. Even where the student is placed in the seating plan could dictate whether the class develops an environment hostile to learning or continues to run smoothly.
Academically, it is vital to quickly assess where a new student is in relation to the curriculum, Schaeffer said, especially as to meeting goals on standardized tests. Sometimes these gaps surface later because teachers don't receive reports from the former school, or the reports are incomplete.
"You have to open your arms and welcome them," Schaeffer said. "But if you are not ready to accept transfers, you are going to be very frustrated as a teacher."
Enlisting student help
"I've had three [transfers] this year, and three who left," said Annie Rutledge, a fifth-grade teacher at Crosby Elementary in Pittsfield.
Rutledge said more work is involved when a new student arrives, but she is fortunate she can count on other staff members -- and in part on her students -- to help ease the process.
Rutledge said she makes sure each new student is formally greeted upon arrival with a welcome sign waiting in the classroom, created with student help. Rutledge also tries to meet the parent or guardian at the school and then walks the student to her classroom. Once there, "We all go through the class rules again," she said, meaning a reiteration of what she and the school expect from students.
This helps students bond as a group, she said, when students assist in going through the requirements they heard on the first day of class. Rutledge said the original students participate in the welcoming process and help anticipate what a new student might need.
"They don't see this as something unusual," she said. "There is no big reaction, not as in the past."
Because Crosby has seen a large number of transfers, with a churn rate of 27.5 percent, Rutledge said, the school is becoming "pretty well versed in it. They know how to do the things to make it easier and make the students feel more comfortable."
"This really is a part of the culture at Crosby," she said.
‘It takes time'
"I think the main problem with getting students mid-year is it takes time to get them into the rhythm of what we've been doing," said Sheila Irvin, who teaches kindergarten classes at Egremont Elementary School.
New students, she said, "have to deal with the expectations of the school district and how that might be different, and how different."
Adoption of the Common Core State Standards process in Massachusetts and 44 other states has begun to standardize the basic educational skills required for all students, Irvin said, but today, students from other states "can come in with very different backgrounds."
Curriculum differences can be significant, she said, and records from a former school can be late in arriving, spotty or of limited use, as the programs are much different from those in Pittsfield schools.
"Those students can really run into some problems," she said.
In those cases, Irvin said, educational assessments by the teacher or other professionals -- or behavioral assessments by an adjustment counselor -- must be brought into the process.
"Sometimes we have to dig hard for [the answers]," she said.
Irvin said she's seen moderate student mobility at Egremont, but she once taught at a military base in Bourne, where there was a high turnover rate.
"The children were often there in September, not there in January, and back in April," she said. "The kids were uprooted."
Some had problems making friends, Irvin said. "These kids don't want to form new friendships, then have them ended."
In general, however, she said "children, especially younger ones, are open to new playmates. In the middle and upper grades, there is more hesitancy" and a rigid social structure.
"And you can always get an aggressive child or one that is very shy," she said, adding: "Over time, kids will adjust when everybody is aware of what is going on."