Violent crime leads more affluent students to switch schools

'Instability and student churning plagues many urban districts,' researcher says
By: | November 17, 2020
When violent crime doubles during the school year, the odds of students transferring are 11% for students who do not receive free or reduced-priced meals and live in the safest 10% of neighborhoods in a school district (GettyImages/creativepictures)When violent crime doubles during the school year, the odds of students transferring are 11% for students who do not receive free or reduced-priced meals and live in the safest 10% of neighborhoods in a school district (GettyImages/creativepictures)

Exposure to violent crime in one city’s urban elementary schools led more students to switch schools—particularly more affluent children who live in safer neighborhoods, new research has found.

This turnover can have negative impacts on student achievement and on school stability, according to a study of Baltimore City Public Schools released by the American Educational Research Association on Tuesday.

“Changing schools is stressful and often harmful to learning under the best of circumstances and when motivated by safety concerns might be even more difficult for students,” ays Julia Burdick-Will, an assistant professor of sociology and education at Johns Hopkins University.

“Instability and student churning plagues many urban districts, and these findings underscore how difficult it is for schools to function in an environment where many students and families are exposed to frequent violence,” Burdick-Will added.


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Researchers analyzed the impact of violent crimes that occurred on school grounds or on surrounding streets during the school day.

Baltimore’s 129 public elementary schools reported an average of approximately eight violent crimes a year from the 2010–11 to the 2015–16 academic years. Most schools did not experience the most serious types of crime, but a few had up to three homicides and shootings in one school year.

When violent crime doubles during the school year, the odds of students transferring increase by 4%. But those odds increase to 11% for students who do not receive free or reduced-priced meals and live in the safest 10% of neighborhoods in a school district.

For students from the most violent neighborhoods, the odds of transferring increased by less than 2%.

“Large numbers of students without the resources needed to navigate a school transfer are likely to feel unsafe and want to change schools, but are unable to do so,” Burdick-Will said. “These students are at a substantial disadvantage, given the negative effect of violence exposure on cognitive functioning and learning.”

The average elementary school had 1.5 students transfer per year due to safety concerns, with as many as 9 students leaving some schools.


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Student turnover can disrupt teachers’ efforts to properly sequence materials and to create a trusting, positive climate. In this way, transfers negatively impact mobile and non-mobile students.

Losing children can also cause financial burdens when schools deepened on per-student funding, the study noted.

“Considering the average amount of spending per student allocated by school districts, the loss of a few students can lead to reduced staff and program cuts,” Burdick-Will said. “In an era when school funding depends on the number of students in a school, it is especially important to understand why students leave and what can be done to stabilize and increase enrollments.”