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Welcome To Two Missouri Classrooms Where Many Children May Not Stick Around

Barbara Shelly
KCUR 89.3
Backpacks line a wall in Aubrey's Paine's 2nd grade classroom at Ingels Elementary School.

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.


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.

For me, it’s the first day of school. I’m here for the start of a reporting project in collaboration with KCUR. We’re going to get an inside look at a year in an elementary school. And we’re going to focus 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.


My plan is to observe two classrooms, a 2nd grade and a 4th grade, on a weekly basis, and I’ll admit to being a tad nervous. Will I get along with the teachers?

Where will I sit? But when I report to Marcia Pitts’ 4th grade classroom at 7:30 a.m., I quickly learn I’m not the only newcomer to the class.


Pitts, a teacher with 42 years of classroom experience, 30 of them at Ingels Elementary, starts giving instructions while the students are still lined up outside of her door.


“Your morning math is on the back bulletin board,” she says. “Morning sentences are in front.” The children file into the room.


“Good morning!” Pitts says, stopping one of them. “Who are you?”

The girl, who has braided hair and anxious eyes, gives her name.

“Where have you been the last two weeks?” Pitts asks. The student mumbles something about being sick.

No one had phoned the school to report a student out for illness, and Pitts is skeptical of the girl’s explanation. But no matter. Pitts also knows the drill, and so does every teacher at Ingels Elementary. Over the course of the next nine months, new children will frequently appear in their classrooms. Others will disappear, often without an explanation or a goodbye. The teachers’ job is to move their classes forward despite the turnover.

Ingels is known as a “high-churn” school. It serves an area of south Kansas City characterized by high poverty rates and a predominance of rental properties. According to data compiled in 2013 by the Local Investment Commission, more than half of the homes within a two-mile radius of Ingels are valued at less than $100,000. Families in the area earn less and are jobless more often than households in Jackson County overall.

Those circumstances add up to lots of movement. Families move because a landlord raises the rent, or a home becomes uninhabitable or a parent loses a job or gets a better one somewhere else. Whatever the reason, Ingels Elementary in the 2015 school year had a mobility rate of 74.7 percent, according to a study released last year by the Kansas City Area Education Research Consortium. Of 10 faces in a given classroom at the start of the school year, seven would belong to different children by the year’s end.

That’s not the highest mobility rate in the Kansas City area, or even in the Hickman Mills district. But it is a defining challenge for the school, its staff and the students. (Learn more from this discussion on Up To Date.)

Later that morning, I leave Pitt’s 4th grade class in the midst of a lively discussion about a story involving dragons and walk the length of the hallway to Aubrey Paine’s 2nd grade classroom.

Credit Sylvia Maria Gross / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Teacher Aubrey Paine helps student Morshun Caldwell with class work. A couple weeks into the school year, six students in her 26-child roster hadn't shown up yet.

She tells me she has 26 students on her roster but six haven’t shown up yet. “Their name tags are over there waiting for them,” she says. “We call but no one answers.”

Paine is starting her fourth year of teaching, and her second year at Ingels Elementary. She began her career in Baldwin City, Kansas.

“Last week I got two new kids,” she said. “One is from Puerto Rico and doesn’t speak much English.”

Paine’s mission this morning is to get her class to divide peacefully into groups and work on activities devised to hone skills like vocabulary, independent reading and vowel sounds.

“Now, remember we tried centers last week and we just didn’t have the right behavior for it?” she asks. “We’re going to try again.”

It goes better. Most of the children focus on their activities with a minimum of fussing. Paine agrees they’ve made progress, but says they have a long way to go.

Still, the year is young and the class has both challenges and potential. But what Paine knows -- even if her young students are unaware -- is that her efforts with today’s class could be lost in the churn by year’s end.

Barbara Shelly is a free-lance contributor for KCUR.  You can reach her at bshellykc@gmail.com.

Barbara Shelly is a freelance reporter and editor based in Kansas City, Missouri.
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