Here's What It Means When We Talk About Student Churn In Kansas City

Feb 20, 2017

A parent arrives home one day to find the family’s possessions sitting on the curb. Those eviction threats were all too real.

A basement fills with water and the landlord won’t come around to deal with the problem. The family has no choice but to move.

An ex-boyfriend is making threats. A nearby apartment complex has a rent special going on. A family moves to be closer to a parent’s new job.

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. This is her latest report.

For many reasons, families move over the course of the school year. For children and their schools, the consequences can be profound.

“You walk around schools and you hear people talking about this,” said Leigh Anne Taylor Knight, an educator and researcher who led one of the most comprehensive studies on student mobility a couple of years ago, focusing on the Missouri side of the Kansas City metropolitan area.

Up until now, student mobility has been something of an under-the-radar factor in education policy discussions. In Missouri and Kansas, for instance, mobility rates are not factored into state accountability ratings for public schools.

But the steady comings and goings of students during a school year, especially in high-poverty districts, are increasingly a worry for educators. High student mobility -- also known as churn -- means extra work for teachers, less involvement on the part of parents and anxieties for students.

“A lot of schools in the metro area are really concerned about their mobility rates,” said Taylor Knight.

A mobility rate can tell us a lot about a district, a school and even a classroom. To calculate rates for Missouri school districts and charter schools in and around Kansas City, Taylor Knight used a formula generally accepted in education policy.

  1. Add transfers in plus transfers out.
  2. Divide that number by the official start-of-the-year enrollment.

Taylor Knight’s research, which was made public in August 2015, found that school district mobility rates on the Missouri side of the metropolitan area ranged from 14 percent in Grain Valley to 74 percent in the Kansas City Public Schools. (The Kansas Department of Education did not make data available.)

The second highest mobility rate on the Missouri side — 61 percent — was in the Hickman Mills School District.

From the beginning of the school year, I’ve been watching students come and go at an elementary school in that south Kansas City district.

According to data that Taylor Knight obtained from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Ingels Elementary had a 74.7 percent churn rate in the 2015 school year.

That number represents 198 students who transferred into the building plus 136 students who transferred out -- adding up to 334 transfers. We divide that number by the official September enrollment, which in the fall of 2015 was 447. Sure enough, my handy calculator comes up with 74.7 percent.

To narrow the lens a bit, let’s look at Aubrey Paine’s 2nd grade classroom this year.

Eighteen children arrived for the first day of school on Aug. 22. More students moved in over the first few weeks, and a few moved out, as schools and families adjusted to attendance boundaries. On the final Wednesday of September — the day of the annual attendance head count required by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education — Paine had 22 students.

Since then four students have moved out of the classroom and seven have come in. So the mobility rate in this classroom so far is 50 percent, with three and a half months left in the school year.

Angelica Saddler’s fourth grade classroom had a more consistent enrollment until Thanksgiving. Since then, four students have transferred into her class and four have transferred out. One boy joined the class right after Thanksgiving and never showed up after the winter break. He gets counted twice in the churn rate formula — as a transfer in and a transfer out.

Saddler’s official September head count was 28 students. So the mobility rate in her classroom so far is 29 percent.

Because the circumstances behind mobility vary — military communities have high churn rates, for instance — there is no agreed-upon threshold as to what constitutes an unhealthy school, or district. Educators generally say that the lower the rate, the better.

We know that every arrival in a classroom means extra work as a teacher must assess the new student’s knowledge and capabilities and introduce the child to the classroom routine. We know that every departure disrupts a classroom’s dynamics.

And we know that even one move in the midst of a school year can negatively impact a student’s academic achievement throughout his or her school career. Taylor Knight’s research found that mobile students had a harder time scoring as proficient in communication arts and math as students who stayed in the same classroom. Even one move during a school year lowered the chances of achieving proficiency by about 40 percent, her research found.

Taylor Knight’s research found that a student who moves even once during the school year is only 60 percent as likely to be proficient in communication arts as a student who spent the year in the same classroom. A student who transfers is 62 percent as likely to be proficient in math as one who doesn’t.

If a school’s churn rate appears to be high, we can be certain the emotional and academic toll is right up there also.

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