It is late morning, and Barb Wunsch limps a bit as she emerges from her office in the enrollment area of the Hickman Mills School District. Twice already she’s banged her knee on the corner of her desk in the process of jumping up to cope with a new situation.
Outside of her office, at least a dozen people sit at tables. The adults busily sort through piles of papers and fill out forms. Children color or read the children’s books on hand in the office. Wunsch moves among the tables, dispensing advice, checking on documents and admiring a newborn in a baby carrier.
It’s the first school day after winter break, and families have been on the move. Parents were waiting for Wunsch when she got to work at 7:30 a.m. at the district’s Baptiste Center and they never stopped coming.
A family was moving in from Wichita, Kansas. Another from Topeka, Kansas. A couple was taking custody of children who had been living in the Springfield, Missouri, area. Another mother said her kids had last attended school in Franklin County, near St. Louis, but they’d missed most of December because of an unexpected move.
More plentiful are families who had relocated from area neighborhoods served by other school districts, like Kansas City, Kansas; Raytown and Grandview in Missouri. At least a dozen parents were transferring children from the Kansas City Public Schools or charter schools. Others were simply moving within the Hickman Mills district.
“We just tend to have a very transient population in the Hickman Mills area,” Wunsch said. “We have a lot of rental properties, a lot of Section 8 housing. We have families who live in hotels. A lot of families double up.”
Wunsch has handled residency and enrollment issues for the district for 18 years. In that time, her job has only become more intense as the district’s housing stock has become older and its population poorer.
The first week or so after winter break is her second busiest period, right behind late summer, when families enroll for the upcoming school year.
By early afternoon on Wednesday, all of the seats at the tables in the outer office were occupied. Roxane Odneal, the receptionist at the Baptiste Center, scrambled to find folding chairs and clipboards for people crowding a second waiting area.
After families fill out a sheath of forms, Wunsch checks to make sure everything is in order. At a minimum she needs birth certificates, proof of residency and shot records. Many families need to document that they have legal custody of a child. Every situation is different and many of them are complicated.
“This is where the frustration sets in,” Wunsch tells me, as she surveys the growing crowd. She is big on customer service and hates to keep people waiting.
On this day, though, most people don’t seem to mind. Kids share games and toys and parents and grandparents swap stories. Those stories help to explain why the Hickman Mills School District’s churn rate — the number of students who move in and out in relation to the start-of-the-school-year attendance count — is the second highest in the region, behind only the Kansas City Public Schools.
Yohanna Gomez, formerly of El Salvador, wanted to re-enroll in the district’s Freshman Center. She had attended classes there when school started in the fall, but moved in with relatives in Kansas City, Kansas, after clashing with her parents. Yohanna wasn’t happy in her new high school and decided to move back home. She was looking forward to rejoining her friends in Hickman Mills.
Cecily Winda was enrolling three boys, ages 10, 8 and 7, in a Hickman Mills elementary school. It will be their third school in a year’s time, following stays in Raytown and Grandview. “They were just getting comfortable in their old school,” said Winda, who works at a call center. But she found an affordable house in Hickman Mills — one with three bedrooms, a patio and a full basement. She hopes it will be her last move.
A grandmother arrived with elementary-age children who had attended schools in Texas and California.
“Where’s Mom?” Wunsch asked.
“She’s homeless,” the grandmother said.
Shortly before 3 p.m., the admissions office took on an international cast.
Natalia Shupe, who moved here several years ago from Moldova in Eastern Europe, came to re-enroll her kindergarten-age son, Mickey, who was dropped from the rolls when he missed too many school days because of ear infections and other problems.
Families from El Salvador and Mexico sat at tables filling out forms with the help of district-provided translators.
Galen Turner, from Jewish Vocational Services, arrived with a family from Syria. The refugee relocation agency initially found the family housing in Kansas City’s northeast neighborhood. Now the parents have chosen to move to south Kansas City, where a Syrian community seems to be getting established, he said.
Wunsch verified that. A landlord in the district is willing and eager to rent to Syrian families, she said. She’s seen several families already and expects to see more. For students who don’t speak English, the district provides language help for one year.
By 5 p.m., the office is cleared out. Some of the parents will have to return the next day with paperwork. Most will take their children to their assigned new schools, where they may or may not land quickly in a classroom. Staffers must obtain transcripts and other records from the students’ most recent schools. Students transferring to middle and high schools will need schedules.
For Wunsch and her families, it’s been a long day in the admissions office. But the problems with moving around don’t stop when a family clears the paperwork hurdles. A recent study by the Kansas City Area Education Research Consortium showed that students who switch schools in midyear are significantly less likely to score as “proficient” or higher on state assessment tests than their peers. Some studies suggest that churn in the classroom even affects students who don’t move.
But there is research, and there is reality. Children in low-income neighborhoods are forced by circumstances to move frequently. Wunsch expects a busy January and another rush of families after spring break.
“I continue enrolling students up until the last week of school,” she said.
Barbara Shelly is a freelance contributor for KCUR 89.3. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.