On the first day of school, Tanya Roane, principal at D.C.’s Cardozo Education Campus, tells her students that she expects them to be in class on time, that cellphones will be confiscated during the school day and that they must focus on their studies.
But for Roane and her staff, the entire year often feels like the first day of school.
“You feel like you are in constant state of reset,” Roane said.
Cardozo is among the public schools in the District that are hardest hit by students transferring in and out of the school in the middle of the academic year, forcing Roane to explain those expectations to new students constantly. The school opened last year with 783 students, but by late spring, Cardozo had seen a 19 percent net increase in its student body, with nearly 150 new students.
More than 10,000 students transfer in and out of District schools in the middle of each school year, according to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, creating disruptions that experts say are linked to lower academic achievement.
A city task force that includes traditional public school and charter school educators and advocates is proposing a new set of policies aimed at gathering more information about the students who transfer and reducing the churn at certain schools. The task force, which Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) created, is expected to present the proposed policies to the mayor in February.
A high number of transfers is worrisome to educators, who say that movement in and out of schools can lead to lower graduation rates and lower academic achievement, as such changes are disruptive both to the student who is moving and to the classes they leave and enter. Principals like Roane have to reestablish behavior expectations. Students are distracted by new peers. Counselors have to constantly adjust schedules, and teachers need to make sure the new students are caught up with the others.
The majority of the students moving in the middle of the year come from other states, according to city data. Others are moving within D.C. Public Schools, while some are leaving charters in the middle of the year and going to DCPS. But city officials say they have no idea why nearly 8 percent of the District’s students are in a constant ebb and flow.
Under current rules, when a family moves to a different part of the District, D.C. Public Schools is legally required to provide a seat in the family’s new neighborhood school. But if that family wants to enroll in a charter school, it is sometimes difficult to find out if the school has an open seat; charters are not required to fill vacant seats in the middle of the school year.
Under the proposed policies, the city would create a central transfer office that would tell families which traditional schools and charter schools have availability. The office would also collect information about why the family is leaving in the middle of the school year and would facilitate the transfer of academic records from the old school to the new school.
The new policies also would allow schools to set aside seats for students who enter the public school system from home schooling or another state. There might also be seats set aside for students who experience various life “hardships,” such as a sudden move that makes it difficult to get to their school.
Some educators and advocates worry that the proposed policies could exacerbate the transfer problem because families could essentially get around wait lists for the most desirable schools if they can argue they have a hardship. And while the policies could help distribute students across schools, they worry that the proposals would not reduce the number of students leaving or entering schools during the academic year.
“The way the proposal is structured right now, it is going to facilitate school movement, which can increase midyear mobility,” said Caryn Ernst, a parent and member of the task force recommending the new policies. “The whole proposal came from the idea that we want to reduce midyear mobility, but this proposal doesn’t do anything to reduce it.”
Jennifer Niles, the deputy mayor for education and co-chair of the task force, had hoped the group would reduce the number of midyear transfers. But Shayne Wells, a spokesman for Niles, said that “after analyzing the data, members concluded that they couldn’t propose reduction recommendations when we know so little about why kids are moving in and out of state or transfer at all.”
“We are exploring ways to find out more about why students move, and obviously the centralized process will help get at that as well,” Wells said.
Angel Dews enrolled at Cardozo on Jan. 9. The 15-year-old moved from Maryland to the District to live with her father.
Dews was used to changing schools, but she had never transferred in the middle of the school year. She was surprised to find that the students and teachers at Cardozo were so helpful.
“Everyone was giving me a lot of attention. It was like, sheesh,” she said. “Teachers were helping me with a lot of things, getting me to my classes.”
Roane said although the school is prepared to welcome students in the middle of the school year, it is not easy. Roane said she supports policies that would help alleviate the churn at Cardozo as long as “parents feel they have a voice on where they want their child to go.”
Regardless of potential changes in how students enroll in her school, Roane said Cardozo will welcome them.
“Whether they enter in August or May, it is still our responsibility to educate any child that walks into our doors,” she said.