McKinley Elementary has made important strides in improving attendance, trying to build an intrinsic desire in students to come to school and to build relationships with families of chronically absent students.
But what happens when those students and their families disappear?
An alarming percentage of students at McKinley don’t spend a full year in the school. So far this year, 33 percent of the schools’ students either arrived after the school year already started or left the school.
School District 2 doesn’t track mobility on a school-to-school basis, nor do Montana or 23 other states. But mobility affects school-level efforts to improve academic achievement and social-emotional skills.
And when a student moves, it’s often out of schools’ control.
“We do have that constant turnover of students,” said McKinley principal Nikki Trahan. “(Sometimes) we think they’re gone for the weekend, but then they don’t show up."
Sometimes parents plan a transition. Sometimes McKinley gets a records request from a new school. School staff will also try to find a student, but too often they're in the dark.
"Ghosting is a perfect word for it,” Trahan said.
The district has taken some steps to try to combat student mobility within Billings, like curriculum changes that aim to ensure that if a student moves to a different school mid-year, they are still on the same learning track at the new school as the old.
And federal law requires that homeless students be allowed to continue to attend their school even if they move into a different school’s zone; School District 2 provides busing to those students.
But sometimes students leave a district altogether. And Trahan said McKinley has seen more and more students arrive from out of state who are more likely to leave Billings behind.
“We’ve seen an influx of kids that come from Chicago, come from Georgia, come from Texas,” she said.
Another commonly used term for mobility is churn, one that better reflects circumstance that can lead to family moves — evictions, health problems, deaths.
“I’m definitely not pointing the finger at caregivers, because sometimes that’s out of their control,” said District Superintendent Greg Upham.
Upham said that getting a better handle on mobility within the district is a priority.
“We know that when students come to school every day, they are on grade level and they graduate with skills,” he said.
Switching schools gets in the way of that.
Research has found that high mobility harms test scores and make students less likely graduate and more likely to have behavior problems. One study found that churn could affect even students who stay put in high-mobility schools.
A Colorado report found that mobility is most likely to impact homeless student or students in foster care, two populations that are already less likely to succeed academically.
Something that has vexed McKinley’s staff is the influx of people from out of state with no ties to the community. The school finished last year with about 255 kids. It began this year with 340 — and 162 who had never attended the school.
Trahan related a story from one mother who moved from Chicago, where her family lived in a relatively high-crime neighborhood.
“She wanted to get her kid out of that environment,” Trahan said. Billings, and perhaps more importantly Montana, seemed to offer an allure of “the west.”
Putting McKinley’s mobility rate in context is challenging, as some states define mobility differently. But Georgia’s definition matches up closely with McKinley’s.
A 2015 report found that the state’s average rate for the previous school year was 22.6 percent. However, the median rate was lower, suggesting that a smaller amount of high-mobility school dragged the average up.
The highest reported district rate in the state was 36.2 percent.
It's likely mobility varies within Billings. Average attendance, which the district does track, correlates with the proportion of students from low-income families that a school serves. A recent analysis by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that churn was highest in schools serving low-income neighborhoods.