'Journal Sentinel' Series Explores Milwaukee's High Student Turnover Rate

Oct 12, 2018

When students switch schools, they’re more likely to fall behind in class and less likely to graduate high school. A new Milwaukee Journal Sentinel series is analyzing the data on student churn both in Milwaukee and across the state.  

Education journalist Erin Richards reported the series, called Lessons Lost, with the help of a Marquette University O’Brien fellowship.

“One of the inspirations for this project was the fact that as long as I’ve been an education reporter here, I’ve heard teachers say, ‘I start the year with 30 kids and I end the year with 30 kids but they’re not the same 30 kids,’” Richards says. “It’s been germinating in my head a long time, how do we put numbers on that — this churn?”

Student turnover is sporadically documented across the country. Richards found that half of states don’t track it at all.

“That makes it really hard to have a national conversation about how bad this problem is,” Richards explains.

The first story in the Lessons Lost series focuses on Carver Academy, a traditional MPS K-8 school.

Richards says Carver is an example of a low-performing school that can’t seem to get out of that rut. A few years ago, the district and community organizations joined together in an "all hands on deck" effort to try to turn around the school. But the fact that more than one-third of students at Carver were new every year made those reforms difficult.

“It can just have a devastating impact on a building and its climate and culture,” Richards said.

According to the Journal Sentinel’s analysis, about one in four publicly-funded students in Milwaukee switch schools in a given year. That does not include students who change schools for grade promotions, like moving from middle to high school.

Milwaukee’s rate of turnover is much higher than the state average of one in 10 students.   

The Journal Sentinel has made its turnover data available on a school-by-school basis.

As the series continues, Richards will explore the personal experiences of students, teachers and parents who are affected by school switching. Richards has followed one mother of seven, named Shana, for about two years.

“She’s been evicted, she has to move, she gets angry the school is disciplining her kid,” Richards says. “This mom loves her children and she wants to see them succeed, but given the amount of forces in her life …staying with a school is not always the highest priority on her agenda.”

Richards says there is a need for more outreach to parents like Shana.  

“I think we all need to recognize there are a lot of parents like Shana out there who need help and are not getting the help they need. The next question would be, how do we do that in a systematic way?”

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