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It's Early Days Yet, But Hickman Mills Teacher Already Is Absorbing Churn In Her Classroom

Barb Shelly
KCUR 89.3
Teacher Aubrey Paine uses tablets to teach essential reading and math skills in her 2nd grade classroom.

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.

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.

Paine started her school year at Ingels Elementary school on Aug. 22 with 18 students in her class. Since then, the count has fluctuated almost weekly.

“I got two more students this morning,” Paine told me three weeks into the academic year, when I dropped into her classroom during the school’s open house. She opened her computer roster to show me the names and began to laugh. “Oh, I have another. I have another new one coming in the morning. Good thing I checked.”

Such is life in a high-churn classroom. The Hickman Mills School District, one of the Kansas City region’s most impoverished, serves a community characterized by low-income housing and mobile families. Ingels Elementary School has a 75 percent mobility rate, meaning that in any given classroom, three of four seats are likely to change ownership over the course of the school year as children move in and out.

Paine is in her second year with the Hickman Mills district, after two years spent teaching in Baldwin City, Kan. At Ingels, the young teacher is respected for her classroom management skills, her unflappable manner and her expertise with technology. Recently, she won a contest for the chance to learn a new reading program done on IPads.

“I was trained in one day. I’m like obsessed with it,” she told me, practically bouncing with excitement. “I’m teaching the whole school (staff) tomorrow.”

At first, Paine’s classroom grew as new students trickled in. But around mid-September she became concerned about a student named Jarbin. For two weeks he was absent from school, with no word from an adult. The Ingels attendance clerk phoned his contact number, but the person who answered spoke only Spanish. Finally the school enlisted a translator, who established that Jarbin and his family had moved to Texas.

Paine greeted the news with mixed emotions. Jarbin had been a sweet student and he had bonded with another child who needed a friend. On the other hand, if he had popped back up in class he would have missed two weeks or more of crucial lessons, including writing detailed sentences and three benchmark math tests. Paine already had her hands full trying to catch up the three students who joined her class in mid-September.

“I don’t know my numbers because I’m kind of new,” one of those students said plaintively one afternoon, after becoming frustrated during a math lesson and knocking objects off his desk. Paine assured him that he did indeed know his numbers and he couldn’t use his new-kid status as an excuse.

Soon after Jarbin’s departure was confirmed, Paine logged into her computer one night to see that another student, from Mexico, was expected the next day. Paine was scheduled to test students all day and a substitute teacher was lined up for her class. She sent an email to her list of parents, asking them to instruct their children to clean out Jarbin’ desk in the morning and welcome the new student. Her 2nd graders stepped up to the desk-cleaning job admirably, but the girl from Mexico never showed up. Eventually she was dropped from the roster.

Jarbin’s old desk is getting good use, though. A new girl joined the class the second week of October and a boy moved in the third week. Both had attended schools outside of the Hickman Mills district.

Also, a boy who’d been in the class since the beginning of the school year transferred to another elementary school in the district. His mother notified the school and the class was able to give him a send-off. But another boy mysteriously disappeared. After he’d been missing for two weeks, Mark Dayton, the school’s family resource specialist, knocked on the door of his last known address and found the place abandoned. He eventually confirmed that the child was enrolled in the Kansas City, Kan., School District.

In her classroom the next day, Paine said she would miss the child. He had a pleasant personality and an aptitude for math. For the moment, his pencil box, crayons and notebooks remained stuffed into the space beneath his desk, as though he might be coming back.

Meanwhile, life in the 2nd grade goes on. Paine is busy assessing the math and reading skills of the two most recent arrivals. In order to work individually with those two students, she gives the rest of the class assignments and hopes they can work independently. That doesn’t usually last long; these are 7-year-olds, after all.

Perhaps all of the comings and goings were in the mind of a student who hugged her teacher in the midst of a recent school day and said, “I don’t want to leave.” Paine hugged the girl back. “I won’t let you leave,” she said.

But she knows that is a promise she may not be able to keep.

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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