KCUR REPORTS FROM A YEAR IN ONE CLASSROOM.
By Barbara Shelly and Elle Moxley
Ingels Elementary, Hickman Mills School District, Fall 2016
Isaiah Rodgers didn’t have much of a say in all of the moving around that had placed him in three different schools over three years.
But after a few days in Aubrey Paine’s second grade class at Ingels Elementary in the Hickman Mills School District, when he learned he’d been reassigned to a classroom down the hallway, Isaiah asserted himself in one of the few ways a 7-year-old knows how.
He pitched a fit. He cried. He begged Paine to let him stay, and she did. Due to a start-of-the-school-year roster glitch, Isaiah had been assigned to her room by mistake, but she was already captivated by the skinny boy with the eager eyes, quick intelligence and the need for a place to belong.
Isaiah asserted himself in one of the few ways a 7-year-old knows how. He pitched a fit. He cried. He begged Paine to let him stay.
Since kindergarten, Isaiah’s journey had taken him from Washington state to Kansas City, where he and his grandmother and sister stayed for a time in the City Union Mission family shelter. From there they tried a move to San Diego, where they had family. When California didn’t work out, they moved back to Kansas City and rented a room in a motel near Blue Ridge Boulevard and Longview Road, in the attendance boundaries of Ingels Elementary. Now they were doubled up with Isaiah’s aunt and her family in a rental home a couple of miles east of the school.
Isaiah’s story is a familiar one in the Hickman Mills School District, where about 6,400 students attend classes in a 56-square-mile area roughly bounded by 87th Street and Harry Truman Drive, and Blue River Road and View High Drive.
Middle-income jobs, amenities and homeowners fled the area decades ago, and today more than 50 percent of the school district’s housing stock is rental or abandoned. Forced into motion by evictions and other circumstances of poverty, children change schools frequently.
Many districts in the region confront a similar challenge, including Kansas City Public Schools. Educators increasingly are recognizing this phenomenon – in education jargon it’s called “student mobility” – as a leading cause of low student achievement and teacher burnout, and it hinders efforts to come up with better education strategies.
Students change schools and districts so frequently for complex reasons.
One is a history of laws and policies that deliberately kept black students out of schools attended by white children. Beginning in the mid-1950s, the Missouri legislature passed stringent laws that stopped the Kansas City School District from growing through annexation, although the city itself was expanding its boundaries.
Today, hundreds of children who list Kansas City as their addresses go to school in Center, Hickman Mills, Raytown, North Kansas City and other districts. A move of just a few blocks can put students in a new district. In the central city, parents frequently move their children in and out of charter schools, adding to the instability.
The shifting student population is also linked to a shortage of affordable rental housing in Kansas City and surrounding suburbs on both sides of the state line, as well as laws and policies that tilt against tenants. Judges in Jackson County Circuit Court order an average of more than two dozen evictions per business day. More tenants are forced to move because of health and safety hazards in their homes and disputes with landlords that don’t reach the courts.
School starts in Aubrey Paine’s classroom
It’s the day after Labor Day. School has been in session for two weeks and Aubrey Paine is still wondering about six missing students on her 2nd grade roster.
“Their name tags are over there waiting for them,” she says. “We call but no one answers.”
Three new children have filtered into the classroom since opening day. One is Isaiah Rodgers, who is showing off a bandage on his neck.
“Want to know how I got this?” he asks. “Spider bite. I’m allergic to spiders and raisins.”
Paine, who is married and has a 1-year-old daughter, is embarking on her fourth year of teaching, her second at Ingels Elementary. She began her career in Baldwin City, Kansas, and is still trying to process the differences between that sedate school district and the urban chaos of Hickman Mills.
Today, Paine wants her class to divide peacefully into groups and work on activities intended to hone skills such as vocabulary, vowel sounds and independent reading.
“Now, remember we tried centers last week and we just didn’t have the right behavior for it?” she asks the 21 children scattered around her room. “We’re going to try again.”
She needs her students to be able to work independently and in groups, Paine explains, because they bring a wide range of abilities to the classroom. The gap will become more evident, and harder to manage, as children move in and out of her classroom.
Down the long corridor from Paine’s classroom, Marcia Pitts is filling in for a fourth grade teacher who is on family leave. Pitts actually retired two years ago, but she’s been at Ingels almost constantly ever since, taking one long-term substitute assignment after another.
When Pitts started in Hickman Mills 30 years ago, she was one of only 12 black teachers at a time when the district was majority white. Back then, a job at Bendix or Marion Laboratories or the old Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base paid enough to buy a house and raise a family.
“We had a lot of non-working mothers,” Pitts remembers. “They practically ran this place when I came. It was hilarious.”
Over the years the industries departed. The stay-at-home moms were replaced by parents working one or more low-paying jobs and stretching to pay rent. The demographics of the district flipped: Today, three of four Hickman Mills students are black, and the enrollment is poor enough for all students to qualify for free school meals.
“Around my tenth or eleventh year (of teaching), you could see it start to change,” Pitts says. “By year twenty, we just had question marks. What in the world happened?”
The answers begin with ruinous housing policies, starting with the Housing Authority’s decision in the late 1980s to locate hundreds of subsidized units in South Kansas City within Hickman Mills’ attendance boundaries. Homeowners exited in droves, leaving more houses in the hands of dubious landlords and out-of-town investors. As time went on, brokers sold homes for inflated prices and risky mortgages. When the foreclosure crisis hit in 2007, abandoned homes sat like fresh scars in Ruskin and other Hickman Mills neighborhoods. The absence of neighborhood pride and loyalty came to be felt in the schools as well.
On a Wednesday evening in mid-September, Paine and Pitts drift around their classrooms, tidying up desks that were put in order hours ago. It is “curriculum night” at Ingels, and parents have been invited to look around and meet their children’s teachers.
But the hallways are eerily quiet. Only a couple dozen parents have shown up. The freshly composed student essays and artwork teachers have displayed outside their classrooms go largely unobserved.
“We had a lot of non-working mothers. They practically ran this place when I came. By year twenty, we just had question marks. What in the world happened?”
People drift sporadically into Paine’s classroom, where the walls are lined with handmade posters reinforcing class rules and explaining concepts such as the difference between tattling and reporting. One poster defines “community”: a group of people sharing the same space.
“We are a classroom community,” Paine’s poster says. Hers has grown by two students today, with a boy who transferred in from another Hickman Mills elementary school and a girl who arrived from the Grandview School District.
As she waits for visitors, Paine calls up the roster on her computer and begins laughing.
“Oh, I have another one,” she says. “I have another new one coming in tomorrow. Good thing I checked.”
Teachers at Ingels rarely receive more than a few hours notice when a new student is joining their class. But the year is young and Paine is upbeat.
“I’m fine with having more kids,” she says. “As long as they have good behavior I won’t complain.”
Parents show up for tricks and treats
Shari Anderson perches in a chair designed for small children, not tall grandmothers in their mid-50s. Along with the handful of other parents sitting around tables in the library media center, she listens as Ingels Principal Sabrina Winfrey vents her frustrations about the current school year.
Ingels’ enrollment changed dramatically after the school board approved new boundaries, Winfrey says. Nearly 200 of the children in school this year are new, and the staff is struggling to get them settled down.
“I told my teachers, we’re in a state of emergency,” Winfrey says. “We’ve got kids in this building who can’t read. We’ve got kids who can’t behave. I need your help.”
The occasion is a meeting of the “site council,” a collaboration between Ingels school leadership and the non-profit Kansas City Local Investment Commission. LINC staffers, in khakis and polo shirts, are a daily presence at the school, supervising the before- and-after school programs and helping with activities for families.
The site council takes the place of a PTA or booster club. Earlier in the month, a “donuts for dads” morning drew more than 100 parents. Upcoming “muffins for moms” and trick-or-treat events will also prove popular.
But only eight parents have turned up for the site council’s first (and, it turns out, only) meeting.
Anderson wouldn’t have missed it. She is intensely interested in her grandchildren’s education and what happens at their school.
“I feel like I’m getting a second chance,” she says. “When my own kids were growing up I really didn’t get a lot of time to do anything because I was in the military.”
Anderson took guardianship of Isaiah and Nevaeh when their mother was unable to care for them. But she has a form of leukemia that leaves her fatigued and at risk for abdominal bleeding. Her illness forced her to take early retirement after a career in the U.S. Air Force and military-related office jobs. Now she struggles to get by on disability payments, and she’s had to move the kids around a lot.
Anderson is thrilled with how well her grandchildren have adjusted to their classrooms, and her coaching likely has a lot to do with their success. She is adamant about finishing homework and reading every day at home.
“I feel like I’m getting a second chance.”
Anderson and Paine both spend time working with Isaiah on behavior. He is bright but easily set off.
“You made a bad choice, but you don’t need to make the rest of your day like that,” Paine tells him one morning after an outburst. Isaiah, who loves football, consoles himself by drawing a picture of a playing field, complete with lines and stick figures.
Paine’s classroom has been changing. After a boy named Jarbin stopped coming to school in late September, it took Ingels’ staff two weeks to figure out what happened to him. His family had moved to Texas.
A new girl quickly moved into Jarbin’s old desk and the next week, a boy joined the class; both had attended schools in other districts. And a boy who had been with Paine since the start of the year transferred to another Hickman Mills elementary school; his mother notified the school and the class was able to give him a send-off. But then another boy mysteriously disappeared. A staffer visited his last known address and found the place abandoned. Eventually, the school confirmed that he was enrolled in the Kansas City, Kan., School District.
For Paine, the comings and goings mean extra work. Every time she gets a new student, she has to assess their skill levels one-on-one. She struggles to get the rest of her second graders to work independently while she does this. No one talked about this kind of challenge at Baker University, Paine says.
The kids notice that their classmates come and go. One day, a little girl hugs Paine tightly.
“I don’t want to leave,” she tells Paine.
“I won’t let you leave,” Paine promises. But she knows she may not be able to keep her word.
A superintendent fumes
Dennis Carpenter, superintendent of the Hickman Mills School District, bustles into the board room at the administrative offices on East 103rd Street, armed with a Power Point presentation and fighting words.
The room is unexpectedly crowded for the school board’s monthly business session, with dozens of teachers filling rows of folding chairs while school board members take their places behind a long table.
Since his arrival in the spring of 2013, Carpenter has walked a tightrope with his board. Parties affiliated with Freedom Inc., the black political club, and the Urban Summit of Greater Kansas City, another politically involved group, had benefited from jobs and contracts with the district, and they fought to retain control. Lawyer Clinton Adams, known for years of interference in the Kansas City Public Schools, had vowed to run Carpenter out of the district. Annual school board elections often turn into hellacious affairs characterized by anonymous, slanderous mailings, as the old guard and reformers jockey for seats.
But recently, board members have arrived at an uneasy truce with one another and with Carpenter. They’ve come this night not to argue, but to listen.
The teachers, along with principals and other staffers, are in attendance at Carpenter’s invitation – or, more accurately, his behest.
The Missouri Department of Secondary and Elementary Education has released its annual performance reports, and Hickman Mills’ score of 67.9 points was the lowest of any area school district – just enough for the district to cling to its status of provisional accreditation.
“In our schools so many of the kids come without their basic needs met.”
Carpenter, who came to Hickman Mills from a district in Georgia, has been critical of Missouri’s accreditation process.
Tonight, he blasts the state’s “one-size-fits-all” accountability system, saying the standards are inconsistent and biased against high-poverty districts.
“I have not seen a consistent testing system and consistent standards since I’ve been in the state,” he says. “For our kids to hit the bar, it’s got to stop moving.”
Carpenter praises teachers for their work, noting that many in the room achieved good results from their students despite challenges their peers in more affluent districts don’t face.
“In our schools so many of the kids come without their basic needs met,” he says. “Our teachers have to be social workers and counselors.”
All while meeting the state’s expectations for academic achievement.
Carpenter reveals a startling reality: More than a quarter of Hickman Mills teachers leave every year.
“It’s a running joke in the district that Hickman Mills is the training ground,” he says.
Carpenter says he arrived at Hickman Mills believing hard work alone could lift the achievement of low-income students. Now, he says, he’s more in tune with research contending that at least 60 percent of a student’s performance on standardized tests is determined by factors outside of the school building.
“Does this mean we don’t have work to do? Absolutely not,” Carpenter says. “But working hard in and of itself is probably not going to be the answer.”
School board members listen attentively, if glumly. They spend a few minutes rehashing the decades of neglect and housing policies that have left a concentration of poverty in the district.
At Ingels Elementary, teachers pay little attention to the school board’s ongoing intrigues. They are consumed with work and the dramas of their own classrooms. Teachers are aware of the district’s disappointing state-issued report card, but they don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on it.
Paine tells her students they’ll be moving on to addition of three-digit numbers. A chorus of “ooo’s” fills the room.
It’s been a relatively calm month in her classroom, which saw only one roster change: a girl who joined the class in mid-September has already departed. She’d been attending school sporadically for a couple of weeks and then stopped coming. Again, Paine received no word from a parent.
Paine’s class at this point seems settled down and in a good routine. Students are familiar with each other and their teacher’s expectations.
Just in time for the dreaded run-up to winter break.
Holidays mean headaches
Teachers everywhere fear those weeks of hyped-up students, sugar rushes and pressures to meet learning deadlines as the first half of the school year draws to a close.
“I have my three cups of chamomile tea,” Paine says of her coping strategy. “One in the morning, one in the afternoon and one at night before bed. It takes me to my happy place.”
By the time break arrives she’ll be thinking of upping her intake.
“I’ve never seen it like this before. I’m enrolling one or two a day. We’re running out of room.”
Two students join Paine’s class early in the month: a girl who’s transferred from the Grandview School District and a boy who is moved in from another Ingels classroom where he was having problems.
Ingels is getting crowded. About 20 students enrolled between Thanksgiving and Christmas – usually a time of low turnover.
“I’ve never seen it like this before,” says Connie Sistrunk, the longtime attendance clerk. “I’m enrolling one or two a day. We’re running out of room.”
By the time winter break arrives, enrollment tops 500 students.
December is also a busy month for Ryan Morrill, Ingels’ music teacher. He and the students are rehearsing for the school’s holiday concert, which takes place on an evening in the final week before break.
Morrill is nervous as he waits for the the event; he’s not sure how many students will show up. Fortunately, children and their families stream into the cavernous space that serves as the school cafeteria, the gym and, tonight, the auditorium. A few students have even dressed up for the occasion. Proud parents dart to the front to snap photos as kids crowd the risers with their classmates.
Principal Winfrey delivers a short welcoming speech before the concert begins, wishing everyone a Merry Christmas. And she expresses her wish for a New Year’s resolution.
“I ask you to have your kids here on time and to let them stay the entire school day,” she says. If children don’t have winter clothing, the school can provide coats, hats, boots — whatever they need, Winfrey says. “School starts on January 4th and we need them here.”
Two boys, one unusual bond
Valentine’s Day in the second grade is all about friendship. And after all his moving around, Isaiah Rodgers has a friend.
He is Dominic Young Jr., a boy who, like Isaiah, is passionate about sports and video games and goofing off.
Dominic, who had been attending a different Hickman Mills Elementary School, joined the class in late September, a few weeks after Isaiah. Both boys are smart but easily frustrated. They share the ability to upturn a desk, but they also can thrill Paine by solving a math problem or writing a strong sentence.
In class, Dominic and Isaiah often huddle over a single iPad, speeding through math assignments so they can play Osmo. They try to rack up points on a vocabulary game by slyly asking Paine what words mean when she’s distracted by their classmates. Soon Dominic is ready for one of Paine’s “brain breaks,” when the class gets to dance to a video.
Dominic and Isaiah get together sometimes on weekends and breaks, to ride bikes and play video games at each other’s houses. This sort of bonding is unusual at Ingels, where children often don’t stick around long enough to form close friendships.
Isaiah’s grandmother, meanwhile, is getting ready to travel to a veteran’s hospital in Seattle to have her myelofibrosis evaluated for possible treatments. Shari Anderson worries about leaving Isaiah and his sisters with their aunt. If doctors prescribe a bone marrow transplant, she could be hospitalized for weeks.
“It’s a test of my faith, my ability to relinquish control,” Anderson says.
In her classroom, Paine is feeling tested as well. Remember the girl who told her teacher, “I don’t want to leave”? She left, moving with her family to another school in the Hickman Mills District. She had been a good student and a class leader. Paine feels the loss.
“My seating chart! I have no idea where to put these kids anymore.”
Fortunately, the boy who soon takes the girl’s place is a cheerful kid who already feels at home at Ingels – he attended first grade there before moving to Grandview for a short stay.
A week later, a new girl arrives. She is from India and, although she speaks some English, her parents are barely able to communicate with Paine.
“My seating chart!” Paine says. “I have no idea where to put all these kids anymore.” She is up to 27 students.
Along with the new faces, February brings an honor for Paine. Winfrey announces at a staff meeting that Paine is Ingels Elementary’s teacher of the year. She receives $150 for classroom supplies and a trophy, and she’s in the running for the district-wide top-teacher honor.
In the administrative offices, Carpenter takes a few moments on a Friday afternoon to scan an agenda for an upcoming meeting of the Southern Communities Coalition, an umbrella group of neighborhoods. When he gets to the third item, he snaps to attention. The coalition, it seems, is going to discuss plans for a charter school in the Hickman Mills School District.
Carpenter fires off a message to staff and district supporters.
“This is very interesting due to the fact that this is the first I have heard of this charter school initiative in our area,” he writes. “Given the national/state focus on charter schools, which have not proven to exceed public schools in their performance, it would behoove us to know more about this upstart charter school initiative in our area.”
District teachers, staffers and supporters pack the community room of the Kansas City Police Department’s south patrol division when the neighborhoods coalition meets the following week. Carpenter stands against a side wall, listening as Robbyn Wahby, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Commission, explains that some community members have put out feelers about a charter school.
“You don’t have enough good schools,” Wahby tells the audience.
The meeting has been going on for more than an hour before Carpenter speaks up. A charter school would cream off engaged families and high-performing students from his already struggling district, he says.
“We’re making blueberry ice cream,” he says to Wahby. “But when the bus comes and brings the blueberries, you get to pick the blueberries. That’s why yours is the best.”
“Children are not blueberries,” Wahby retorts.
Maybe not, but charter schools operate with rules that are different from traditional public schools. Charters don’t have to accept kids mid-year, and they can waitlist students if they don’t have room. Carpenter says charter schools have had a destabilizing effect on the neighboring Kansas City Public Schools, that he’s seen how families leave the district for other educational opportunities and then come back when they don’t find what they were looking for.
Charters, Carpenter concludes, would only make the Hickman Mills School District’s problems worse. Supporters of the idea meet once more a few weeks later. After that the idea seems to go into hibernation.
A Spring breakdown
Paine is supervising reading circles one morning when her students are distracted by a commotion in the hallway. Someone knocks on her door.
Carpenter sweeps in, along with other district administrators and a news crew. Paine is one of three finalists for the Hickman Mills School District’s teacher of the year.
In a nominating letter making a case for Paine, Winfrey touted the teacher’s fluency with online educational programs and other forms of technology, along with her ability “to develop real relationships with each of her students.”
Paine’s second graders gasp and cheer when Carpenter makes his announcement.
“I’m praying for her to win,” Dominic Young says earnestly.
Carpenter’s visit is a bright spot in a difficult month. All of the kids moving in and out of Paine’s classroom has changed the dynamics. Children are feuding and melting down more often. A boy throws a chair. He’s sent not to the office, but to a buddy classroom to cool down. He’s not the first, and he won’t be the last.
“Some of you do not have the behavior to go to third grade.”
Spring break provides a welcome rest, but getting back into the swing afterward is a challenge.
“Guys, I’m here. Look at me!” Paine sternly tells her unruly class one morning. “I work hard to get you to do good on your tests so you can graduate to third grade. I need you to work with me. Some of you do not have the behavior to go to third grade.”
Time for goodbyes
Paine begins the final month of the school year fretting about another missing student. The boy, who had been in her class almost since the first day, has gone missing.
He had been living with his great grandfather. But when school officials check with him, he says the boy’s mother, who has legal custody, wanted him to live with her, and that she planned to enroll him in the Kansas City Public Schools.
But one morning the boy shows up in Paine’s classroom, looking around for his old desk. Confused, she escorts him to the office. Administrators call the grandfather, who explains that the mother never enrolled the boy in a new school. He asks if the student could finish the year at Ingels. But Hickman Mills is no longer the child’s legal residence, so the answer is no.
“What have you been doing all these weeks?” a counselor asks the child.
He shrugs. “Just sitting around watching the world go by,” he says.
Paine turns away in tears. So does the grandparent.
As the end of the school year approaches and attendance plummets, Paine starts sending her students home with books and small gifts.
She gives Dominic Young books on a subject that fascinates him: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dominic has made good progress in second grade and tested at close to fifth-grade levels in reading and math. Paine looks forward to seeing him return to Ingels in the fall.
When Paine bids farewell to Isaiah Rodgers on his last day in her class, she has a feeling she won’t see him again at Ingels. His grandmother is talking about moving, although she hasn’t yet decided on where.
Paine sends Isaiah off with hugs. She’s had a soft spot for him from the start. At least, she says, she got to keep him for a full year. In a classroom of comings and goings, hellos and goodbyes, that is no small thing.