Public education is supposed to be the great equalizer.
And while it's easy to focus on teachers and curriculum as the engines behind a student’s success, housing instability also affects learning. Frequent school moves in childhood can impede academic and social development, research shows.
Those in K-12 education use a term when a student changes schools: it’s known as student mobility. In highly transient neighborhoods like the area surrounding the University of South Florida in Tampa, student mobility is high because families move a lot.
"The number of kids that have gone from kindergarten through 5th grade at my school without ever leaving, is like a handful," said Brittany Bayliss, a school social worker at Shaw Elementary School, located in the University Area neighborhood of North Tampa.
At the beginning of the school year in August, Shaw had just over 600 students. Now, it's close to 750. Rising rents, subpar housing and eviction are some of the reasons why families end up moving. Bayliss said it's one of the more overlooked details of poverty.
"It's not like they can just go rent a U-Haul and put all their stuff in it and then stay in a hotel for a couple of days until their new apartment is ready,” said Bayliss. “That's not a reality for my families, so a lot of times they will couch surf for days, if not weeks in between. And the kids end up missing a lot of school."
For teachers, seeing their students come and go in a matter of months, not years, removes the opportunity to get to know kids so they can evaluate their strengths and weaknesses.
“You know in areas that don't have quite as high mobility, I see teachers decorating their doors with the names of their students,” said Bayliss. “The teachers at my school can't do that. It's hard as an educator to plan when you just really don't know how many kids you're going to have.”
It’s not hard to imagine how the stress of unstable housing can hinder a child's education. Adults have the cognitive abilities to process difficult emotions, but that's not as easy when you're 6-years-old.
That was the age of Paulette Duclos’s son when she fled Naples to escape domestic violence in 2009. When she and two of her children came to Tampa, they were briefly homeless, and later lived in a shelter. They eventually got a federal Section 8 voucher to live at North Boulevard Homes, a military- barrack style public housing complex in West Tampa.
Duclos said the once crime-ridden apartment complex made up of drab cinderblock apartments was a bit of a culture shock.
"We're from Naples and now we were living in the projects,” she said. “It's a whole different lifestyle. The housing, school, everybody in this area is stressing, so nobody's in a good mood.”
North Boulevard Homes has since been demolished. But at the time, living there was the family's best option. The kids finally had a little stability and were back in school, even if it was still a struggle.
Duclos said back in the early days, her son once told her that the best part of going to school was getting food.
"I can remember at times, he would bring home a granola and a juice and tell me, I don't know if you had anything to eat today, but I brought this for you,” she said.
Duclos now has a good job. Her kids are teenagers and she says they do well in school, in no small measure due to her persistence.
“After what me and my children went through, I’m not going to stop,” she said. “Education is everything. Education is life.”
But many highly mobile students do not get that kind of support. A growing body of evidence suggests that frequent school moves negatively impacts student performance. In a research study, the MacArthur Foundation noted that academic performance slightly declines each time a student changes schools.
Hillsborough County Schools Supervisor of Social Work Services, Myrna Hogue, says these deficits add up.
"By the time you get to eighth grade, or going into high school and you are that far behind, it’s very hard to catch up,” she said. “A lot of times you'll see that's where kids want to drop out because they feel defeated."
And not surprisingly, homeless children often drop out of school or underachieve academically.
According to Hogue, 2,710 identified homeless students are enrolled in Hillsborough Public Schools. Last year, the school system ended the year with 4,877. Based on where they were this time last year, the number of homeless students is projected to be over 5,000.
“If we could take away that stress and students could have a stable, safe place to live, it would allow them to focus on what they need to do in school,” she said.
Hogue also said that while young children are affected by moves, teenagers are also vulnerable.
“It's a big burden for them because often they are tasked with finding a job to help out the family,” she said. “So they're trying to work and to keep up with all of their homework assignments. When we hear their stories, it's amazing that they've even been able to stay in school. We really have to pay attention and try to take some of that burden off. They are still kids.”
So, Hogue says, housing matters. The Hillsborough County School District has two service centers to assist families with various social services, including finding a place to live.
Corretta Crompton came to one of the centers after she and her children were evicted from their Tampa apartment. Two years ago, Crompton slipped and fell, was seriously injured, was unable to work and got behind on rent.
“For me to get hurt, and for me to lose the house was a lot,” she said. “It’s something that’s very difficult to go through with kids, and I don’t wish that on my worst enemy.”
After the eviction, Crompton was in and out of the hospital for more than a year. She says her oldest, then just a 7-year old, felt like she needed to help look after her younger siblings. As a result, Crompton said the little girl often did not want to go to school.
"I think it was just a lot of pressure on her, said Crompton. “It started affecting her attitude and how she handled stuff. It was starting to make her feel not so good about herself."
Crompton says her daughter is doing better now, counseling and tutoring at one of the service centers in Tampa helped. School district personnel also worked with a nonprofit to help Crompton and her family secure temporary housing for up to two years. And all three of her kids are now in school.
"If I can make it to the day after they graduate, each one of them and by the last one, I see him walk across the stage and Lord forbid he takes me the next day, I'm fine with it,” she said. “That is my goal, just to see them walk across the stage because education; they need it."
It will be a long journey. Crompton’s youngest, is a second grader.