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Ten-year-old Elizabeth Padilla has been the new girl over and over, at school after school around City Heights. First there was Central Elementary for kindergarten. Then Carver. Then Euclid.

Then the landlord upped the rent and her mother went to find another apartment. Elizabeth was off to Cherokee Point Elementary. Then to Marshall Elementary this January. And at Marshall they pleaded for her to stay.

“You’ve done so well here. Do you know that? Do you feel it? You’re really letting your light shine,” Principal Staci Monreal told the tall, tomboyish girl one Wednesday when she stopped into the office.

Elizabeth likes Marshall. At some of her old schools, she talked back to teachers and bickered with other kids. Here, her teacher applauds her reading. Classmates like her. She wants to finish elementary here.

But she is moving again, this time because of a fire that consumed everything, even the family car. And that means another time to fold up clothes, pack up her drawings or give them away to friends — and switch to another school. She and her little sister Grace will be headed back to Euclid Elementary just a mile away after spring break — the fifth time she has had to change schools in as many years.

“I asked my mom if we could stay,” Elizabeth said. “She said she’d think about it. But it’s hard for her.” Their family has one van and a lot of places to go in the morning, making the idea of yet another trip a headache.

Educators often bemoan the revolving door of teachers in and out of disadvantaged schools. But the revolving door of kids is no less worrisome. Switching schools again and again can handicap children academically. They miss some lessons and repeat others. Kids who move more than twice are roughly half as likely to do well on a national reading test than those who haven’t moved at all, according to one study.

Their classmates suffer from the churn too, as teachers try to juggle new kids with old ones. “You’re always reteaching,” said Becky Benitez, a teacher who has spent a dozen years at Marshall. That goes for everything from rounding decimals to how to line up for lunch. Any day can be the first day of school.

There is no easy answer. But Monreal believes there must be one if the school hopes to get ahead. Marshall has some of the most transient students in the whole school district, beat out mostly by schools with military kids. More than 500 kids were enrolled at Marshall at the beginning of last year. Roughly 100 more came during the year. And 100 left. When the principal pulled records for her fourth graders, she found one in three had been to at least three schools.

Yet the schools were often just a mile or two apart, so close kids could have stayed. One fourth grader had switched schools seven times. Kindergarten was at Jackson Elementary on El Cajon Boulevard, first grade at Ibarra, less than a mile away. Second grade was split between Knox five miles to the south and then back to Ibarra. Then to Oak Park. Then Ibarra. Then Marshall. Then Fay.

Another little boy has moved four times. His school records were so confusing that his teacher still isn’t sure if he was held back a grade. He lags academically and his huge hazel eyes wander. His last school wanted to see if he had a learning disability. Marshall began testing him and found nothing wrong.

“He’s just been moved so many times,” said Alys Braun, his fourth grade teacher.

Elizabeth is faring unusually well, but not all kids are so lucky, Braun said. “Kids say every week, ‘We’re going to move.’ Nobody is even surprised. Then a kid won’t show up and the rest will say, ‘Oh, he moved.’”

There is no rule stopping kids from staying at Marshall after they move. San Diego Unified allows families to go to any school that has room for them — if they can get there. But some parents are unaware of the rules. And even when they know, a mile can be too far for poor families without an easy way to get around.

Poor families also move more often — and Marshall has a lot of them. Roughly two out of three households in the City Heights area make less than $30,000. Braun once saw a child wearing shoes four sizes too big; he stuffed cartons of apple juice into the toes to make them fit.

Elba Padilla knows switching schools is frustrating for her daughter. Sometimes Elizabeth has even stopped talking to her. But Padilla says she has had no choice. After their house went up in flames in February, it was hard enough to find another decent, affordable home, let alone one that was close to Marshall. She used to run her own daycare but hasn’t had the space to do it. Her husband is a cook.

They are lucky enough to still have a car: Padilla recently replaced their scorched car with a used van. But her husband doesn’t drive and she has to shuttle him to work, take her teen son to an alternative school, then bring her baby with cerebral palsy to a program in Chollas View. Marshall seems impossible.

“I don’t have time,” she said in Spanish. And she fears putting Elizabeth and Grace on a public bus on El Cajon Boulevard. “I would love them to stay. Absolutely. If there was a way to get transportation.”

Yellow buses roll all over City Heights. But most of them are shuttling children away from the neighborhood, not around it. Buses take kids to magnet schools or distant neighborhoods for integration, to other schools that aren’t failing under No Child Left Behind. A few buses do bring children to Marshall — but they are only for children with disabilities.

Student Transiency in San Diego Unified Elementary Schools

This map shows student transiency, measured by the
“mobility index” in different San Diego elementary schools
in 2009-2010. The schools with the highest mobility are red;
the lowest mobility are blue.

The mobility index is calculated by adding the number of students
who enter after the school year begins to the number of students
who leave during the school year, dividing it by the school
enrollment at the beginning of the year and multiplying it by 100.
Click on each school for more information. Source: San Diego
Unified School District.

Schools often throw up their hands at the problem, seeing it as a fact of life they just can’t control. Yet Monreal has made it a mission to slow the revolving door. She knows it can be done.

It happened at Central Elementary in City Heights, where she used to work. Ten years ago Central had the highest churn of any elementary school in the city. It has fallen by half. When Principal Cindy Marten catches word that a kid is moving, she insists on meeting with their family to let them know they can stay. She makes a big fuss when children say they’re moving, so much so that some kids fake it for attention.

When two children were separated from their mother because of her meth addiction, Marten pleaded with the judge to keep them close enough to still go to Central, to keep something stable in their lives. But the kids were put in a foster home across town in Clairemont, near a different school.

“I couldn’t stand it,” Marten said. “So I picked them up every day.”

Not everyone can take matters into their own hands like Marten. But other school systems have cracked down on churn by talking with parents before their children transfer like Central does or by advertising the benefits of staying in the same school. Experts suggest it could also be tackled as a housing problem, stabilizing families so they don’t switch schools. And Monreal dreams of a little bus making the rounds in City Heights.

Monreal has pleaded with Padilla to keep Elizabeth and Grace at Marshall. Their new house on Orange Avenue is just a mile and a half away. It seems so close. Yet Padilla says it’s still too far. It is a seemingly simple problem that ends up being maddeningly complicated for Monreal and her staff.

“They’re catching on and they’re learning. The teachers are giving them everything they’ve got,” said school clerk Sylvia Soria. Forty-seven new children have come through the office to register since January. Twenty-one have gone. “And then they pack up and leave.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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