Get There If You Can

1/10th of a mile can make a big difference in a child's school day


Ever since the fall of 2005, our family has had a child in kindergarten, first grade or second grade at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School, from which we live 0.9 miles. We are, according to Providence Public Schools’ transportation policy, not eligible for transportation by school bus to or from school. We’d need to live a mile or more from school in order to qualify for bus transportation. That tenth of a mile has made a gigantic difference in our lives.

Because (nearly) a mile is a fair stretch for little kids to walk, and especially because Hope Street runs between our house and King, my kids don’t walk to school on their own. It is just too dangerous, especially in the winter. So we get our kids to school and back while managing work and other commitments.

In doing so, we have much in common with thousands of families citywide who live inside their kids’ school neighborhood zones. For the full picture, it’s useful to know that middle school neighborhood zones are a mile-and-a-half radius from school. High school zones are three miles. If kids live within those zones, no matter the barriers – and some neighborhoods feature obstacles considerably more intimidating than Hope Street – they don’t get a bus ride to school.

Many families lack the resources needed to get their kids to school. Such resources may include a car, money for a RIPTA pass, or time. As a result, Providence’s schools show evidence of damaging chronic absenteeism. “The Importance of Being in School: A Report on Absenteeism in the Nation’s Public Schools,” a Johns Hopkins University report released in May 2012, describes “chronic absenteeism” as what happens when a student misses at least 10 percent of school days for any reason; it reports Providence’s chronic absenteeism rate as 34 percent of all K-12 students in 2010-2011.

Data released by the Providence Public Schools demonstrate a slight improvement in 2011-2012, with 20.7 percent of students chronically absent, and 11.7 percent of students categorized as “excessively absent,” with over 36 days missed per student (that’s 20 percent of school days missed). Because chronically and excessively absent students aren’t attending school regularly, their academic performance suffers significantly at all grade levels. Student academic success depends on many factors, but perhaps none so critical as their actual presence on a regular basis.

Transportation challenges are at the top of the list of reasons why students don’t attend school regularly. Fixing this one problem would have a powerful positive impact on student performance. It’s the classic example of low-hanging fruit. The Providence Public Schools have identified it as such and are putting into place a range of supports that will help more kids to get to school.

The signal example of this effort is a pilot program that provides free RIPTA bus passes to ninth grade students who live more than two miles from their school. Providence’s Youth 4 Change Alliance (Y4C), a group of young people that has gathered data and stories about the financial and physical challenges students face on their way to school, provided the motivation for the ninth grade RIPTA pilot. Y4C’s evidence galvanized the Providence School Board to change the walk zone for ninth graders from three miles to two, and brought stakeholders from the school district and RIPTA together to hammer out the details of the program, which will distribute bus passes to a projected 847 students, a huge increase from the projected 253 ninth graders who would have otherwise been the only recipients of free passes by dint of living more than three miles from their schools.

The program is currently in place only for this year and is being closely monitored to determine if it has a positive impact on attendance. I surely hope that it does and that funding is identified to expand the program to all students citywide as soon as reasonably possible. It’s a limited but definite step in the right direction.

At the elementary level, the Family Service of Rhode Island’s Providence Children’s Initiative worked with Fogarty Elementary School families last year to determine the causes of chronic absenteeism. They discovered that many of the students who were missing school most frequently lived within a mile of the South Providence school. In response and in collaboration with the school district, the Providence Children’s Initiative has debuted the “walking school bus,” which uses trained volunteers to meet kids at a designated place and time to escort them safely to school.

This is a splendid idea, a powerful example of how we can pull together to ensure kids are in school, provide meaningful support to families, reduce dependence on energy resources, increase pedestrian safety and demonstrate that we are willing to be creative and committed aswe improve our city’s schools.