Second of two parts
By Mary Fortune
In the last year, Eddie and Maria Fox's five children have attended East Lake Elementary, Clifton Hills Elementary, Spring Creek Elementary, East Lake Academy and East Ridge Middle schools.
The reason is simple -- the family keeps moving. They lived for a while with Mr. Fox's mother in East Lake, then in a rental house in East Lake, then in a motel in East Ridge and now, temporarily, with Mr. Fox's mother again.
Chelsie Fox, an 11-year-old fifth-grader, said she likes Spring Creek Elementary and hopes she can stay there.
"My teacher was nice the first day," she said. "The kids are nice, too."
Overall, 31 percent of students in Hamilton County have moved into or out of their schools this year, records show. East Lake Elementary has the highest mobility rate, with nearly 53 percent of students moving into or out of the school.
Shifting student populations present challenges for principals, teachers and students themselves, educators agree. But the root of student mobility often is a lack of stable housing, an issue school leaders said they are hard-pressed to affect.
"The more stable things are in a child's life, the better the child is going to do. Housing is a huge part of that," said Rick Smith, deputy superintendent for Hamilton County Schools. "But there's just not that much control."
C.J. Green, an energetic 5-year-old, has been in the same kindergarten class at Spring Creek Elementary all year, but his mother, Joanne Green, hopes to move soon from the Superior Creek Lodge motel room where they live.
That might mean a different school for C.J., but Mrs. Green's husband, a carpenter, would like to be closer to his jobs, which typically take him to suburban building sites in Hixson or Ooltewah. Mrs. Green, who is expecting a daughter in July, said she'd like a bedroom for the baby, and a backyard for C.J.
"There's no place for the kids to play here," she said of the motel.
The Hamilton County school system, with about 40,000 students, serves about 500 children who are considered homeless, including those who live in shelters, hotels, parks, cars or temporarily with a family member, according to Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Jim Scales.
Stability is closely tied to home ownership, according to data from the school system and the U.S. Census Bureau. In Hamilton County, the schools with the highest student mobility rates are typically in ZIP codes where many of the occupied dwellings are rental properties, according to census numbers.
East Lake Elementary, with the highest student turnover in the system, is in a ZIP code where 47 percent -- or 1,513 households -- are rentals.
At the other end of the spectrum, a school with one of the lowest student mobility rates is Lookout Mountain Elementary, in a ZIP code where 82 percent -- 730 of 887 households -- are owner occupied.
The connection between stable housing and stable classrooms was illustrated when the Chattanooga Housing Authority demolished two housing developments in Alton Park -- McCallie Homes and Maurice Poss Homes.
"We lost quite a few kids with the closing of Poss and McCallie Homes," said Debra Matthews, the Hamilton County Board of Education member who represents the district where the developments were located. "Stability is critical to learning, and housing is a critical part of that."
There were 131 school-age children living in Poss Homes when its 188 apartments were demolished, CHA spokeswoman Cheryl Marsh said.
All the residents of McCallie Homes were gone by the middle of 2003, and CHA replaced those 300 units with a $35 million mixed-income development. Residents were relocated in several stages, but the final group to leave included 63 school-age children, Ms. Marsh said.
Ray Swoffard, associate superintendent of elementary education, said the shift in local public housing changed where many Hamilton County students attend school.
For example, many of the children who lived in South Chattanooga now live on Standifer Gap and Rainbow Creek so they attend Ooltewah schools, he said.
Despite the changes in the local developments, however, public housing allows families with potentially unstable housing to establish a home, CHA Executive Director Bob Dull said.
"Generally, many families who live in public housing, specifically those with little or no income, would be at risk for homelessness if not for that safety net," he said. "Often, homeless children have to change schools when shelters or other temporary accommodations are not located in their current school district."
At the Community Kitchen downtown, children who live in transitional housing are taken by bus to area schools, director Charlie Hughes said.
"We've had pretty good success with them going to those schools," he said.
Homeless children who stay at local churches that participate in the Interfaith Hospitality Network are taken by a transportation company to their schools, Mr. Hughes said.
About 25 families who send their children to Spring Creek Elementary live in the Superior Creek Lodge, a motel just off Interstate 75 in East Ridge, said Paula Burgner, the school's principal. The living situation is usually temporary, and that means the students tend to move in and out of school, she said.
"They're fine people," Ms. Burgner said. "The problem is the children have usually missed a lot of days in the school they've come from, and they haven't been in one place long enough to be tested."
The Fox family lived in the Superior Creek Lodge for about a month, from February to March, when they moved their children from East Lake schools to Spring Creek Elementary and East Ridge Middle. Now that they're living in East Lake again, Eddie and Maria Fox drive to East Ridge to pick the children up at their bus stops.
Students who attend Spring Creek can stay if their family moves, as long as they get to school on time and can arrange for transportation, Ms. Burgner said. Mrs. Fox said she was relieved to learn that.
"I just don't want to have to move them again," she said.
Every afternoon at the Burger King and the McDonald's on Ringgold Road, a yellow Hamilton County school bus drops off elementary school children, many of whom who live in the motel a few blocks down Mack Smith Road.
The Superior Creek Lodge has rooms to rent by the week, and the Greens have lived for nearly a year in one of the windowless one-bedroom units. It's not an ideal situation, Mrs. Green said, but it's what the family could get when they moved here from New Jersey and needed to enroll C.J. in school. The $170-a-week cost of the unit includes utilities, and Mrs. Green can walk to stores and restaurants.
"I hear trouble going on sometimes, but I don't mess with (anybody)," Mrs. Green said. "You can't avoid that when you live in a motel. People are always moving in and out."
Families living in the motel typically are in a temporary situation, and that makes it hard to develop a consistent rapport with the children, Ms. Burgner said.
"The child gets here, gets used to us, we learn about them, then they move," the principal said.
MAKING THE CONNECTION
The people who are most likely to get to know the families of mobile students are the school system's social workers, Mr. Smith said. They follow up when there are attendance or other problems, visit homes and meet parents, he said.
"We've had students living in travel trailers in RV parks. They're here a while, then they're not here. We try to stabilize things the best we can," he said. "The longer we can keep a child from having to change schools, the better off the child will be."
But there are just 16 social workers to serve the 80 schools in the district, the deputy superintendent said.
Part of the challenge of helping children succeed when they don't have stable housing is simply connecting with the family, Spring Creek Elementary principal Ms. Burgner said. The parents are often in difficult personal or financial circumstances, and it can be hard to overcome their fears about how the school system will treat them, she said.
"I think parents are concerned we are not going to be accepting of them," she said. "But we are here for the kids. We will do whatever we can, we will stay as late as we need to stay."
Staff writer Christina Cooke contributed to this report.
E-mail Mary Fortune at firstname.lastname@example.org
Under the federal No Child Left Behind act of 2001, schools and school districts are judged on how well students score on state tests. If students score below what the state considers proficient, schools face negative consequences such as state takeover. Under the federal law, schools are held responsible only for the test scores of the students enrolled on the 20th day of the school year. Students who move to another school in the district after the 20th day count toward the district's score, but not any school's.
Staff Photo by Kathleen Greeson
Joanne Green and her husband have been sharing a room
with their son, C.J., 5, at Superior Creek Lodge in East Ridge for almost a year.