The tipping point may have come in late January, when yet another quick-tempered boy moved into Aubrey Paine’s second grade classroom at Ingels Elementary School.
Or maybe it was the departure in early February of the bright, motivated little girl who had been the leader of a reading circle.
As winter gave way to spring, the change in in the student roster came so fast I barely recognized the happy classroom I’d first walked into in September.
Paine scarcely recognized it either. Somewhere along the line her job had morphed into one that involved as much crowd control as teaching.
“We started out pretty small and didn’t have a lot of behavior problems,” she tells me as the school year nears its close. ‘We received a lot of compliments about our class. We were all super, super close and building a community. We still work on that now, but it’s a little more difficult. We have 26 students now, I believe?”
In this classroom and others where children regularly come and go like a nonstop game of musical chairs, hard work simply can't overcome the instability. Teachers and administrators can only bemoan lost opportunities and search for solutions for next year.
A year in the life
I visited Paine’s classroom at Ingels Elementary nearly every week during the 2016-17 school year to see first-hand how student mobility impacts teachers, children and families. Classroom churn is rampant in the Kansas City area, especially in districts serving low-income families. And yet the stories of the havoc it wreaks have gone mostly untold.
Ingels is one of eight elementary schools in the Hickman Mills School District in south Kansas City. Most of its families are poor. One hundred percent of Hickman Mills students qualify for free lunch.
Ingels' boundaries encompass several sprawling apartment complexes, a couple of motels serving transient families, and blocks of low-slung houses owned by out-of-town investors. Built in 1966, the single-level elementary school is bursting at the seams. Nearly 200 new students poured in at the start of the school year as the result of district boundary changes. About 200 additional students have come in or out since then. The school will end the year with more than 500 students.
“It’s been a transitional year,” says Sabrina Tillman Winfrey, the principal. “Just kids coming and going and trying to get everybody on the same page, including the parents. That’s kind of difficult sometimes.”
Even if every student would stay put, this school faces multiple challenges. Many of its students are two or three grade levels behind in reading and math. Teachers spend a lot of time dealing with attendance and behavior issues. Winfrey struggles to convince parents they need to get their children to school on time and prepared to learn.
This is Paine’s second year at Ingels and her fourth as a teacher. She moved from the calmer environs of Baldwin City, Kansas, driven by a sense of mission. “I felt appreciated there but I wasn’t needed as much,” she says.
By many measures, Paine has had a successful year. Many of her second graders have made solid gains in reading and math. She was one of three finalists for district teacher of the year.
But as the year has worn on, I've watched Paine become increasingly frustrated. She believes in building community among her students and maintaining routines. But that’s hard when the classroom dynamics keep changing.
Since the first day of school, 13 new students have entered Paine’s class and five have departed. Those numbers include a couple of students who came in and then left.
At least half a dozen of the new arrivals are young boys prone to meltdowns and fisticuffs. After a point it became impossible to separate everyone who might cause a problem. Scuffles became a regular occurrence.
Paine now counts herself fortunate when she works through her lesson plans. She worries about keeping her students on track with the all-important benchmark scores in reading and math. Fun activities such as “brain break,” when students get to dance to a video, happen infrequently.
A wake-up call
While the turnover in Paine’s classroom is high, it is not unique or even unusual in the Kansas City area, says researcher Leigh Anne Taylor Knight.
“Superintendents, counselors, teachers, principals all talk about this churning of students in and out of classrooms, in and out of schools, and how difficult it is to keep your eyes on the performance of individual students when you aren’t sure how long they were going to be with you and how long you are going to be able to serve them,” Taylor Knight says.
In 2015, the Kansas City Area Education Research Foundation released a groundbreaking study on student mobility on the Missouri side of the Kansas City metro.
Taylor Knight found that one in five students moves at least once during the school year, and those students have poorer attendance and lower achievement rates than students who don’t move. Mobility is most severe in the Kansas City Public Schools, certain charter schools, and districts closest to Kansas City’s core, like Hickman Mills.
Taylor Knight’s research served as a wake-up call to educators and leaders around Kansas City. They gathered for a “mobility summit” and discussed measures such as sharing utility bills and other data required for enrollment to lessen the time that children are out of school between moves.
But families – especially those who are poor – remain in motion.
A transient childhood
Over winter break this year, I met Sharonda Hooker Dennis, a parent with a son at Truman Elementary, another Hickman Mills school. She experienced a transient childhood herself, and shared her regret that her son was in his fourth school in five years.
“I went to four different high schools,” she says. “I don’t know how many middle schools or elementary schools. I had reading problems. I kept an F in math because everybody teaches different.”
Hooker Dennis overcame her troubled school career to get a steady job as a dental technician. But her training at a for-profit career college left her with crippling student loans and garnished paychecks. As her financial problems mounted, she was evicted from her apartment.
“We ended up having to sleep in my car, some nights in my sister’s house, some nights at a friend’s house,” she says.
Although she now lives in a rented house in south Kansas City, the move to Truman isn’t working out well, Hooker Dennis says. Her son was struggling academically before he got there, and she finds his class too large and raucous.
“With the Hickman Mills school district, it’s hard, because they don’t have the time to sit down with each student and give them the attention that they need,” she says. She’s thinking about moving again to try to find a better fit for her son.
At schools like Truman and Ingels, the near-constant student churn makes it hard to devise effective strategies to solve problems. And mobility creates its own set of problems.
I also made frequent visits this year to Angelica Saddler’s fourth grade classroom at Ingels. Saddler, too, has had her hands full with an unruly classroom that has burgeoned to 30 students, many of them a couple of grades behind academically.
“They started off kind of low and I haven’t seen the progress I’d like to see,” Saddler says.
Saddler herself missed the first few weeks of the school year; she was at home with a newborn daughter. Since she’s arrived, about a dozen students have come in and out of her classroom.
“Many times I’m not aware that they are joining my class until that morning, and so I’m just trying to make sure that they have a desk and supplies,” Saddler said.
Like many other area districts, Hickman Mills is pushing to have its students become fluent on iPads and computers, in part because state assessment tests must be taken online. But that gets complicated when new students join the class.
“We do a lot of work on iPads and they’re not always in the system yet and able to jump right into the work that we’re doing,” Saddler said. “I always have to go back and add them to things that I’ve created for the class and get passwords and user names set up.”
All of that takes time that Saddler should be spending on instruction.
“It gets really hard,” said Winfrey, the principal. “I’m constantly trying to build morale because there are certain points where, you know, teachers are on that edge. They want to do their best for kids but they’re always starting over."
Many of Ingels’ teachers were new this year, and several teachers have told me they aren’t sure they’ll return next year. Mobility and the pressures of trying to raise the academic performance of disadvantaged children have taken their toll. A common complaint is that the school lacks effective methods for dealing with students who disrupt classrooms and learning.
Paine doesn’t plan to leave. But she has regrets about this school year. She wanted to take her class on a field trip to the zoo but opted against it as she struggled to get her students settled down. One of her girls still carries a few dollars to school in her backpack, just in case the trip materializes.
While many of her students are doing well, Paine wishes she had more time for others.
“I still haven't gotten all my kids up to speed because of how fast they come in and out,” she says. “You can only do the best you can.There's no answer that says I get all of them caught up all the time.”
The last few changes in Paine’s classroom were especially wrenching.
In early April, she lost one of the students who had been with her since the beginning. The girl simply didn’t show up on a Monday morning. An attendance clerk made calls and learned the family had moved to a different school district over the weekend. No one had bothered to notify the school.
Her spot was quickly taken by a boy from a different district. He turned out to have some learning issues that should have been communicated to Ingels but weren’t.
Then, with a month to go in the school year, another student went missing. School officials looked for him and finally heard from a grandparent, who said the boy’s mother had wanted him to come live with her in Kansas City.
But one morning the boy showed up in Paine’s classroom. Confused, she escorted him to the office. The grandparent explained that the mother had never enrolled him in a new school, and could he return to Ingels? But he no longer had legal residency in Hickman Mills, so the answer was no.
“What have you been doing all these weeks?” a counselor asked the child.
He shrugged. “Just sitting around watching the world go by,” he said.
Paine turned away in tears.
Barbara Shelly is a freelance contributor for KCUR 89.3. You can reach her at email@example.com.