Musical Chairs

This yearlong project focuses on a significant but under-the-radar aspect of education -- the frequency with which students change schools during the academic year, and the challenges that arise from all that moving around. KCUR contributor Barbara Shelly immersed herself in a second grade and a fourth grade classroom in the Hickman Mills School District to learn firsthand how all this 'churn' affects students and their education. And KCUR reporter Elle Moxley adds a broader perspective. 

The culminating stories in this series will be published in the morning on Tuesday, May 22, 2017.

Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3

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.

Barbara Shelly / KCUR 89.3

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.

Barbara Shelly / KCUR 89.3

Students in the Hickman Mills School District are returning from spring break this week, and their teachers are gearing up for the final stretch of the school year. In most grades, that includes high-stakes state achievement tests.

Teachers and administrators want nothing more than to settle down their classrooms and get everyone focused on the work ahead. But in this south Kansas City district, movement in and out of classrooms shows no signs of slowing down.

Barbara Shelly / KCUR 89.3

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.

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

Barbara Shelly / KCUR 89.3

Second-grade teacher Aubrey Paine leads her class into the school computer lab, gets everyone seated, then moves from computer to computer, typing in login information and issuing instructions.

Barbara Shelly / KCUR 89.3

Kaily Ross rocked a baby stroller as she talked to the staffers who run the after-school program at Ingels Elementary School in the Hickman Mills district.

Could her older son, the 3rd grader she was enrolling in the LINC program that day, still get in the flag football activity? What else did they offer?

It was a few weeks after the start of the school year and Ross’s son was transferring from another area district. When I asked how many schools he had attended to that point she sighed and said, “There have been so many.”

Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3

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.

Barbara Shelly / KCUR 89.3

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.”

Barbara Shelly / KCUR 89.3

If an event at Ingels Elementary School calls for participation from parents, Shari Anderson is there.

Goodies for grandparents. Check. Anderson has legal guardianship of two grandchildren who are enrolled at the school.

Muffins with moms. Why not? She’s mothering the kids.  

Barb Shelly / KCUR 89.3

Aubrey Paine is a 2nd grade teacher, the mother of a 1-year-old girl, a Kansas City Chiefs fan and a technology buff. So it isn’t as if she needs more excitement in her life. But lately she’s taken to looking at her class roster every night, just to see what the morning might bring.

“We have all these new kids. I never know what to expect,” she told me on a recent Tuesday afternoon. The newest student had joined the class just that day. You couldn’t miss him: the shaggy-haired boy in soccer shorts, an athletic shirt and eyes that darted between eager and guarded.

Barbara Shelly / KCUR 89.3

Marcia Pitts lets her 4th graders know they have a big job ahead of them on this Tuesday. Open house at Ingels Elementary School is scheduled for the next evening, and Pitts is preparing her students to write a short essay. The best of their work, she says, will be posted on the bulletin board outside of her room to show to parents.

 

The essay assignment is biographical, and Pitts has written a sample about herself.

 

Barbara Shelly / KCUR 89.3

At Ingels Elementary School in the Hickman Mills School District, children are lining up outside of their classrooms for the start of the school day. They know the drill; faces front, hands at sides, no talking. It’s the morning after Labor Day, and most of these students have been in classes for two weeks.