Ingels Elementary School in the Hickman Mills district marked the days before the holiday break with a concert, a chance to spray the principal with silly string and enough cookies and candy canes to vault children into the new year on a sugar high.
Like teachers everywhere, the faculty was visibly relieved as the closing bell drew near. But this group may need the break more than their peers in some other schools. As the principal, Sabrina Winfrey, told parents at the start of the concert, featuring 3rd and 4th graders, “this year has been a bit different.”
I’ve visited Ingels Elementary frequently since the start of the school year, watching how poverty and high rates of student churn affect children, teachers and school communities.
The Hickman Mills School District in south Kansas City serves a community that has become increasingly isolated and cut off from prosperity. Homes that once belonged to middle-income families have become battered rental properties owned mostly by absentee landlords. Most parents work one or more service industry jobs. The student enrollment is constantly in flux.
Ingels Elementary started the school year with more new students than usual. The Hickman Mills district converted two of its formerly neighborhood-based elementary buildings into magnet-type schools specializing in math, science and technology. The move provided an attractive option for some district families, but it displaced others.
Nearly 200 children who had formerly attended the converted schools ended up at Ingels. Teachers — many of them new as well — spent the first half of the year reinforcing the school’s culture and expectations. It wasn’t easy.
Then, right after the Thanksgiving break, a flood of new students entered the school.
“I’ve never seen it like this before,” Connie Sistrunk, the longtime attendance clerk, told me. “I’m enrolling one or two a day. We’re running out of room.” In all, about 20 students enrolled between Thanksgiving and Christmas — usually a time of low turnover. The student population now tops 500.
In the 4th grade, teacher Angelica Saddler added two new students, bringing her roster to 30 in a classroom that already had seemed too small. Saddler, a teacher with four years of experience, returned to work from family leave in late September, with an infant at home and a formidable task at school. Most of her students are below their grade level in reading and math. Many days she feels like she spends more time on classroom management than on actual teaching.
But Saddler — who showed up for the evening concert to watch her students — told me she was looking forward to a fresh start after the holiday. The break, she said, would give her a chance to impose more routine and expectations when students return.
On Wednesday, a half-day for students before the start of winter break, only 12 of the 23 children in Aubrey Paine’s 2nd grade showed up for the planned classroom party. As her students munched on treats sent by parents and watched a movie starring Dr. Seuss’s “Grinch,” Paine seemed worried not about getting new children, but about one she was about to lose.
A girl who had come into the class in October hadn’t been in school for the last week and a half, the teacher said. The child’s mother never provided the required proof of residency to the school district, and she was to be dropped from the roster at the end of that day.
“She’s so great,” Paine said of the student. “I can’t afford to lose her.”
Thinking about the year so far, Paine said she is pleased many of her students are testing at or close to grade level. But others haven’t made progress. “They’re not here enough,” she said.
Attendance, like mobility, is one of the school’s struggles. Winfrey addressed the issue at the holiday concert, as she does every time she addresses parents.
“I ask you to have your kids here on time and to let them stay the entire school day,” she said. If winter clothing was an issue, the school could provide coats, hats, boots — anything to get children out of their homes and into the building, Winfrey said. “School starts on January 4 and we need them here.”
But in this high-churn district, that’s never a given. In Saddler’s 4th grade classroom, I asked one of the students why she wasn’t at the holiday concert.
“I was packing,” she said.
I asked if she was going on a trip. She shook her head. “Moving,” she said matter-of-factly. When I asked if she would be returning to Ingels, she said she didn’t know.
Barbara Shelly is a freelance contributor for KCUR 89.3. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.