For a full 2016-17 academic year, journalist Barbara Shelly immersed herself in a second grade and a fourth grade classroom in the Hickman Mills School District to learn firsthand how 'churn' affects students and their education. The frequency with which students change schools during the academic year is a significant but under-the radar aspect of education. Working with Elle Moxley, a reporter for KCUR 89.3, Kansas City's public radio station, Shelly explored the challenges that arise from all that moving around — many of which involve the broader community.
A family needs to find a new apartment. A parent got a new job. A charter school seems to offer a better fit. Children change schools often and for many reasons during the academic year.
And yet student mobility is one of the great underreported challenges in education. Issues such as student achievement, teacher preparation, bullying and school choice command attention from school leaders and communities. Rarely does the conversation extend to classroom churn, even though it creates a state of flux that makes all the other problems more difficult to solve.
When leaders in Kansas City collected data a couple of years ago, they 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 do not move.
But that is only the beginning of the story. KCUR 89.3 wanted to know what all of this moving around looks like on the ground. And so we launched a project, “Musical Chairs.” Contributor Barbara Shelly spent the 2016-17 school year visiting Ingels Elementary in the Hickman Mills School District. KCUR staffer Elle Moxley added reporting from Ingels and others parts of the community. They documented the educational chaos generated as students moved continually in and out of classrooms.
We found that mobility harms all students — not just those who move around. It robs teachers of lesson time as they scramble to assess the academic levels of newcomers and introduce them to classroom routines. It leaves holes in classrooms as families often move without notice, forcing school personnel to track them down. By the second half of the year, classrooms were out of school supplies and at least one teacher was conducting an online donation drive to help her incoming students.
“I still haven’t gotten all my kids up to speed because of how fast they come in and out,” 2nd grade teacher Aubrey Paine told us as the school year wound to a close.
“It gets really hard,” agreed Sabrina Tillman Winfrey, the principal at Ingels Elementary. “Teachers want to do their best for kids but they’re always starting over."
As the school year progressed, we talked to families marked by transience.
“I went to four different high schools and I don’t know how many middle schools or elementary schools,” a mother, Sharonda Hooker Dennis, told us. She wanted a more stable education for her young son, but he was in his fourth school in five years.
And we spent time learning about Hickman Mills, which since the 1990s has transitioned from a thriving community of working families to an impoverished and neglected enclave of Kansas City. The instability and disinvestment that mark the neighborhoods are keenly felt in Hickman Mills schools.
The stories from our year spent in Hickman Mills are reprinted here. More conversations and voices can be found at KCUR.org. Click on Musical Chairs under the Special Projects tab.
Our hope is for Musical Chairs to become a starting point, not a conclusion. KCUR is pleased to have broken ground on this underreported but crucial aspect of education in the Kansas City community and elsewhere. We hope to join with others in continuing a conversation that may eventually lead to more stable schools and families.
Barbara Shelly is a veteran journalist and writer based in Kansas City, Mo. She has been an opinion columnist, metro columnist, editor and reporter for The Kansas City Star and is currently a contributing writer for The Pitch and a frequent guest on KCPT’s “Week in Review.”
Barbara specializes in writing about Kansas and Missouri state governments, schools and colleges and health care.
Her interests include bikes, biographies, piano, people, family, friends, cats and kids. Her favorite pursuits are travel and hanging out on her front porch in Kansas City’s Waldo neighborhood.
Elle joined KCUR in 2014 as a general assignment reporter. She covered the 2016 election in Kansas as part of a political reporting partnership with NPR. Today, she covers Missouri schools and politics.
Before coming to KCUR, Elle covered Indiana education policy for NPR’s StateImpact project. Her work covering Indiana’s exit from the Common Core was nationally recognized with an Edward R. Murrow award.
Elle has also reported for The Examiner in Independence, Missouri, and KBIA-FM in Columbia, Missouri. She is a proud graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism.