In many ways, this week’s “student mobility summit” in Kansas City was a summing up of the obvious.
Students who switch schools a lot have trouble academically and socially. Kids from poor families move around more than children from affluent families. Mobility drags down a school’s performance, which leads to more mobility.
No surprises there.
Don’t get me wrong — Mayor Sly James and area education and community leaders have zeroed in on a crucial problem. I have heard stories for years from parents who move their kids from Kansas City Public Schools to charter schools then back to public schools and maybe even in and out of a different district. They’re desperate to find a good fit, but things just get worse and worse.
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But destructive student mobility is a symptom of other things, like poverty, a dearth of economic opportunity and a public education system that has been eroded by foolish experimentation and turmoil at the state level. Until those problems are eased, families will remain on the move.
The summit, organized by the mayor’s reading initiative, Turn the Page KC, and GradNation, a national campaign to raise graduation rates, shed some light on the scope of the problem.
More than one in five students who attended public schools in Jackson, Clay and Platte counties moved at least once in the last school year. More than 6,350 children changed schools twice or more. The most churn is seen in the Kansas City Public Schools, many of Kansas City’s charter schools and adjacent districts like Hickman Mills and Independence.
Dennis Carpenter, superintendent of the Hickman Mills School District, listened to the data and tried to send a message through a tweet. “Teasing out mobility is necessary,” he said, “yet insufficient without addressing causal factors!”
Later, he explained: “To start with mobility is noble, but there’s just so many ‘whys’ below that,” Carpenter told me. “I think community deprivation has to be looked at. A focus on economic equity in communities of color would lower mobility.”
Carpenter knows this very well. His district in south Kansas City encompasses neighborhoods that have seen better days. Businesses and retail have exited over the last couple of decades. Many of his students, three-fourths of whom are African American, live in low-cost rental units that are easy to find and easy to leave if paychecks run scarce.
All of Hickman Mills’ schools experience churn. At one elementary school, Santa Fe, the rate is 91 percent, meaning nine of 10 students will move in or out of the building over the course of a school year.
Carpenter, who arrived two years ago, is trying to provide stability with free preschool for all children in the district and more support and opportunities through high school. But good-paying jobs for parents would solve a lot of problems.
People at the meeting came up with some ideas for limiting the damage of student churn: Get better records systems so students can enroll in new schools more quickly. Use community resources to help ease the transition to new schools for students and families.
Those steps would help, but they are treatments for a malady, not prevention.
How about we convince the state of Missouri to fund school transportation better so that students who move within a district’s boundaries can finish the year at the school in which they started.
While we’re at it, let’s rewrite the state’s charter school law to raise the bar for starting new schools and fund them better once they clear it. False promises by marginal charter schools remain a big reason for student transfers in Kansas City.
Oh, and let’s raise the minimum wage so families can stand a better chance of paying their rents. And let’s get better public transportation so that people in places like Hickman Mills can get to work.
Maybe this, too, is stating the obvious. But if we want school kids to quit moving, the community has to get moving.