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Recession uproots families, takes toll on kids' education

By Anne Wallace Allen

For The Associated Press

Published: Thursday, May 28 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Social worker Ana Leon counsels Isabel Flores about problems at a new school in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Jon Way, Associated Press

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Like the Great Depression, this economic downturn is wrenching lives out of shape.

But unlike 90 years ago, hunger isn't the main problem, and neither is the kind of homelessness that sent thousands of middle-class Americans into tent cities during the Depression. This time the toll is far less obvious: children are grappling with more stress at home, and low-income families, already highly mobile, are being forced to pull up stakes and move more often.

"It's huge," said Ana Leon, the school counselor at Wilton Manors Elementary in Fort Lauderdale, who said mobility had increased significantly this year at her 600-student, mostly low-income school.

Many Wilton Manors students are migrants whose families are returning to live in Central and South America because there's no work. Others are construction workers leaving Florida's collapsed housing market to look for jobs in Texas.

Educators and demographers say frequent moves can lower school performance and increase chances that students will drop out of school. It also makes it more difficult to provide appropriate resources to children who have learning disabilities and behavioral issues.

"Mobility is one of the main things that hinders student achievement," said Leon. She cited the case of a young girl in elementary school who moved from another city just one week before standardized testing began.

"She was lost," said Leon.

Other students leave without any warning — the families just disappear one day, said Leon, adding that in those cases it's impossible to help the children prepare for the move and assure a smooth transition to another school.

Jean Lovelace, a principal at the low-income Whitney Elementary School in Boise, said among the hardest hit are children who were struggling to begin with. She illustrated the point with a young boy who arrived at Whitney in September with an attention deficit disorder. Over the course of the school year, his mother lost her job, and then the family lost their home to foreclosure. They plan to move to a new town where housing is less expensive.

"Things were pretty settled while they still had their house," said Lovelace of the first-grader. "Then they lost their house, and his naughty behavior has absolutely escalated."

Changes in living conditions are also stressful at home, particularly if newly unemployed adults are sharing space, said Sophea Chom of South Junior High in Boise. Her father was recently laid off from Micron Technology Inc., a Boise-based computer chip maker.

"Currently my mother's brother lives in the house with us, so it's all chaos and catastrophe," said 15-year-old Chom, whose mother works at Micron. "My dad is getting grouchier by the moment."

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