“Students who are flourishing are not the ones typically transferring schools.”

Erin Richards:

Test scores tell another story. Less than 5 percent of students are proficient in English and math on the state exam. The vast majority score “below basic,” the lowest category, in both subjects.

Despite devoted teachers, a spirit of achievement, extra money and five years of attention from Milwaukee’s best minds in business and education as part of an unprecedented turnaround effort, Carver’s students are stuck academically.

The school’s biggest obstacle turned out to be something nobody was even tracking: Student turnover.

More than a third of Carver’s students — 38 percent — were brand new to the school last year. Just a few students from the elementary grades stay through middle school each year, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel analysis of the social and academic consequences of chronic school-switching.

Improving urban education has no silver bullet. Low performance is too interrelated with poverty and toxic stress and the generational trauma many children carry into schools. But new data suggests that student turnover is a massive indicator of academic struggle and stagnation. Test scores drop because of it. Graduation rates fall because of it. Teachers don’t know what to do about it. Principals can’t recognize their own students as a result of it.

And until now, nobody knew the extent of it.
Angela Peterson / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Third grade teacher Symona Gregory works with Kamariana Brown, 8, in preparation for a math test in May 2018. Gregory is a fourth-year teacher at Carver Academy and a former City Year staff member. She was named teacher of the year at the school in 2017-’18.

Enrollment and test-score data analyzed by the Journal Sentinel revealed the quiet churn of more than 22,000 Milwaukee students across all types of schools last year — a phenomenon that’s ravaging the city’s prospects for educational improvement.