THE Boston junior-high-school student says he often can't remember the teachers or students from his last school. "I forget what it looks like," says the boy, who is now attending his 12th school in the last three years.
Another boy, who arrived midyear at a school in nearby Somerville, Mass., pulled a coat over his head for the first six weeks and refused to participate. He was at his 15th school in three years.
Americans once held the ideal of a student attending the same neighborhood school from kindergarten through elementary grades.
But high student mobility has become a daunting reality of the nation's urban schools. And it is prompting a fundamental shift in learning as urban teachers and administrators struggle to accommodate revolving-door students, educators say. Not only are teachers finding it more difficult to build a cohesive unit in the classroom, but they are increasingly forced to teach a less-demanding curriculum.
Triggering the changes are three main forces: economic pressures on low-income families who are on the move to find low-cost housing; the instability of many of these families; and a lack of parental investment in schools, which they often distrust.
Add a high rate of turnover of principals and teachers in urban schools, says Scott Miller, the author of a report on student mobility for the Council for Aid to Education in New York, "and the problem of mobility is simply one layer in a much bigger onion of problems."
A 1994 Government Accounting Office (GAO) report stated that 1 in 6 of the nation's third-graders - over half a million - has attended three schools since the first grade. At urban schools, the figure is often double that.
The signs of movement can be found everywhere:
In Elizabeth, N.J., 98 percent of the children at Public School 2 had spent part of the year somewhere else, according to a 1993 state Department of Education report. At another school in Jersey City, the rate was 89 percent.
In Montgomery County in Maryland, the percentage of all students who have attended at least two schools in an academic year has risen to 24 percent today from 12.9 in l983.
And in Florida, where the statewide mobility rate is 37 percent, one elementary school in Osceola County had a rate of 84 percent in l994.
In classrooms, as students come and go, the consequence is often a shift to more review of material. Introduction of new topics is much slower. Transfer of students' records is often so slow that teachers have no background on new students for weeks. And teachers and administrators cannot evaluate the effectiveness of what they are doing because much of the evidence continually leaves the school.
"Across the grades what happens is a flattening of the curriculum," …