To the many challenges facing Prince George's County schools, add this: the most mobile student population in Maryland.
A state report released yesterday found that the county accounted for more than 28 percent of roughly 671,000 student transfers documented statewide from 1998 to 2002. The next highest were the Baltimore City and Montgomery County school systems, each of which had about 13 percent of the state total.
The report suggested that high transfer rates, often linked to poverty and family flux, may hurt the academic bottom line as certain schools struggle to accommodate a year-round ebb and flow of students. Students who move more than once -- between schools, districts or states -- appear to be especially vulnerable.
Although poverty is a more significant factor than mobility in academic performance, the report found, many students who are not eligible for free or reduced-price meals -- a government poverty indicator -- can suffer setbacks from a school move.
Among such students, the report found, "even a single . . . transfer had a negative impact academically, and this effect increased with the number of transfers."
The Maryland State Department of Education released the report yesterday in Baltimore.
The report shed fresh light on the demographic dynamics affecting Prince George's County schools. With more than 135,000 students in 196 schools, the state's second-largest system is seeking to raise test scores, which are among Maryland's lowest.
Student mobility is just one issue. Some neighborhoods have high crime and poverty. School officials also point to low parental involvement in some schools and high teacher turnover in many. In addition, private schools siphon off many students from well-to-do families in a county with many upper-middle-class enclaves.
Leroy J. Tompkins, chief accountability officer for Prince George's County schools, said student mobility has long been a concern. "It poses some fairly significant challenges," he said. In response, he said, the county in recent years has standardized its curriculum and teaching materials to help minimize disruptions for children who transfer within the system. "That provides some stability," he said.
Statewide, the study found, 46 percent of transfers occurred within school districts. About 19 percent were from district to district and 20 percent involved students from other states. About 7 percent were private school-related.
Poverty played a role in about 19 percent of the transfers. Home purchases, job transfers or child-care troubles were cited in about 35 percent of the cases. Divorce was cited in 17 percent of the cases. Other factors included religious beliefs and military moves -- a key issue for schools serving Andrews Air Force Base and other military installations.
Some suburbs, such as Charles County, have been a magnet for student movement in Maryland, officials said.
In September, nearly 1,900 students entered the system at grades higher than kindergarten, said Ronald G. Cunningham, associate superintendent in Charles County.
Two dozen students who live outside the county pay $4,905 a year to attend public schools there, including 20 students from neighboring Prince George's to the north, school officials said.
Staff writer Joshua Partlow contributed to this report.