Even Past Spring Break, Hickman Mills Teachers Still See Students Leaving

Mar 19, 2017

Students in the Hickman Mills School District are returning from spring break this week, and their teachers are gearing up for the final stretch of the school year. In most grades, that includes high-stakes state achievement tests.

Teachers and administrators want nothing more than to settle down their classrooms and get everyone focused on the work ahead. But in this south Kansas City district, movement in and out of classrooms shows no signs of slowing down.

As part of a project KCUR calls 'Musical Chairs,' journalist Barbara Shelly is spending a year inside two classrooms in an elementary school in the Hickman Mills School District.

One morning in early March, the district’s enrollment and residency coordinator, Barb Wunsch, helped several families with the admissions process.

A parent, who was re-enrolling a child in the district’s preschool program, read a picture book to her daughter as Wunsch checked out her paperwork. The mother’s serene manner gave no hint that she has moved multiple times in recent years, including a stay in a homeless shelter.

Another family was in Wunsch’s computer from a couple of years ago. Her records showed they had moved to Chicago in 2015. Now some of the siblings were returning with their mother, while others were staying with their father in Illinois.

“I can’t imagine being a teacher and rotating students out and getting new ones this far into the school year,” Wunsch said.

Aubrey Paine can barely imagine it either, even though that situation is her reality at the district’s Ingels Elementary School.  Since winter break, four new students have entered her 2nd grade classroom and one girl has departed.

“I just want some peace,” Paine said, showing me the latest configuration of her classroom. “She is endlessly rearranging her seating chart and her reading groups to accommodate changing dynamics, skill sets and personalities.

On her own time, Paine has been busy on Donors Choose, a web site that allows teachers to seek financial backing for projects or classroom supplies.

Last year she successfully appealed for a set of tablets. This year friends, family members, strangers and Kansas City’s Kauffman Foundation have helped her purchase Wobble Chairs that serve as a reward for well-behaved children, a liquid motion bubbler toy to distract and calm angry children, and a monitor that sounds a siren when noise in the room reaches a certain decibel level. Paine also appealed for basic school supplies.

“As our class continues to grow more children are coming to school with few or no supplies,” she wrote in her proposal. “So my classroom supplies have slowly become non-existent.”

In Angelica Saddler’s 4th grade class, I spoke with a girl who had just arrived. She said she missed her friends at her old school, in a community about 50 miles outside of Kansas City. “But I already have a friend here,” she said, pointing to a girl across the room. “She’s really nice.”

She may find that cultivating long-lasting friendships can be difficult in a school with a transient enrollment. Families often move with no notice and parents change phone numbers frequently, making it hard to arrange the typical play date. Student churn is troublesome for educators and families, but the loneliness and stress it imposes on children is the saddest of its effects.

As the incoming superintendent of the Hickman Mills School District, Yolanda Cargile pledges to work with families.
Credit Barbara Shelly / KCUR 89.3

The Hickman Mills School District is also experiencing mobility in its top administrative ranks. Dennis Carpenter, the superintendent since 2013, is moving on to be superintendent of the larger, more affluent Lee’s Summit School District. The new Hickman Mills superintendent will be Yolanda Cargile, a Ruskin High School graduate who is currently the district’s associate superintendent of student services.

At a reception recently, Cargile expressed gratitude for the opportunity and said she planned to move forward in partnership with the district’s families.

But that alliance, as Cargile and others in this district understand, is tenuous and ever shifting.

Barbara Shelly is a freelance contributor for KCUR 89.3. You can reach her at bshellykc@gmail.com.