Why Some Kansas City Students Have To Change High Schools Over And Over Again

Apr 27, 2017

Saadiq Thompson will walk across the stage and proudly receive a diploma from Ruskin High School in Kansas City in a few weeks. But he’s only spent a sliver of his student days there.

By his account, Thompson has moved nine times among eight different schools since his freshman year. His journey has zigzagged between Texas and Missouri, with a stop in New Mexico. Before that, he moved among two different middle schools, depending on whether he was living with his mother or father.

And: “Oh yeah, I did go to multiple elementary schools,” he said, once he thought about it for a moment.

Thompson is 18, but his story sounds more like a narrative you’d expect from an older person. He’s moved to be near family members, lived on his own, and at one point relocated to be near a former girlfriend because he thought — mistakenly, as it turned out — that he was about to become a father.

He’s been at Ruskin High School in the Hickman Mills School District for four months, having started his senior year in New Mexico. Last year he attended Grandview High School for part of his junior year, having moved from a school in Texas.

Thompson’s story doesn’t surprise Christopher Barker, an assistant principal at Ruskin. “Kids, they’re growing up too quick,” he said. “They just need to slow down and be kids. The more stable they are, the more they’re kids. But the more they move the quicker they grow up.”

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.

Barker sees students move in and out of Ruskin daily.

“Their lease is up. Their family has moved for whatever reason. Their landlord has decided to move the rent,” he said. “This is a high rental area so a bunch of our houses turn over quickly.”

Those are stories I’ve seen repeated frequently this year while reporting on the high student mobility rate in the Hickman Mills district. Classrooms in the elementary and middle schools look much different this spring than they did when school started in August. In some, more students have moved in or out than the number of students who have stayed in one place.

But the high school narratives have a twist. At the elementary and middle school levels, moves are driven by circumstances involving parents. After that, students themselves often initiate transfers. They decide they’d rather live with a different family member. They move to be with a friend. Or they leave to escape a conflict with other students.

Chris Taylor, a senior, prevailed upon his parents to let him move back to Ruskin after spending his junior year in the Blue Springs School District.

“My parents thought (Blue Springs) was a better environment but I didn’t think it was,” he said. Taylor said he feels more comfortable with the teachers and students at Ruskin, and he was able to reclaim a spot on the basketball team — something he missed at Blue Springs.

Alexander Plunkett relocated during his senior year of high school after his birth father connected with him through Facebook.
Credit Barbara Shelly / KCUR 89.3

Another senior, Alexander Plunkett, has been at Ruskin for only three months, having relocated from Wisconsin. For him, the move was a fresh start. After a childhood spent in foster care and an unhappy adoption situation, his birth father contacted him on Facebook. Said Plunkett: “He asked me to come live with him in Kansas City and I came.”

His last school was a military academy, so the move to an urban high school took some adjustment, Plunkett said. But he’s on the track team and making friends.

“There’s a lot of very kind kids here,” he said. “Before I leave I want to make a good imprint on Ruskin.”

Moving can be hard, though. Deja Crockett, a sophomore, has already attended high schools in Leavenworth and Grandview, and her family might move again soon.

“I think we’re going back to Grandview, or maybe Blue Springs,” she said. “My mom just wants us to move. She noticed were really not learning much here.”

Maybe because of the moves, she holds back from investing in school and students, Crockett said. She hasn’t gotten involved in activities at Ruskin. “I keep things to myself. I try to stay to myself and not talk much to people.”

Thompson, the student who has moved nine times while in high school, has experienced a similar disconnect. “The hardest part is when you leave and you tell someone, ‘I’m leaving,’ you notice that people...well, they care, but you’re leaving. Sometimes it makes me kind of want to give up on myself.”

I ask him what has kept him in school through all of the turmoil in his young life. “My mom,” he said. “I gotta make her proud. I’m going to prom even though I won’t know too many people there because she wants to dress me up and take pictures.”

With Barker’s assistance, Thompson has enrolled in a post high school program that will enable him to learn the electrician’s trade and take additional classes. Alexander Plunkett and Chris Taylor are looking at community colleges.

Barker, who has been a teacher and administrator in the Hickman Mills district for 16 years, takes the comings and goings on his students in stride.

“I found out yesterday I was losing one of my longtime students,” he said. “I’ve known him since 8th grade. He’s a junior and I’ve worked with him extensively. Last night he walked up to me as he was walking out of school and said, ‘I’m leaving. Today’s my last day.’ His family made that decision over the weekend, to have him move to Texas.”

But Barker knows that, for every student who departs, someone will enroll. And sooner or later all new students find their way to Barker’s noisy office, by the cafeteria. “Most of the time my door is open and kids just come in and out,” he said.

The very same thing can be said of his high school.

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