Education

Mind the Gap

Children living within three miles of school are responsible for providing their own transportation to public school. Is this fair?

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On February 24, the Providence Student Union organized the Walk in Our Shoes Challenge, which offered the opportunity to experience a student’s 2.96 walk from her home in the Wanskuck neighborhood to Classical High School. Walk in Our Shoes participants – including politicians and political aspirants, school district leaders, many students, children’s advocates and RIPTA leadership – headed off at 6:40am and made it to Classical with just minutes to spare before the 8am morning bell. This smart bit of community organizing made visible the challenges presented by the Providence Public Schools’ transportation policy, which requires high school students who live fewer than three miles from school (as the crow flies, not as the bus drives) to provide their own transportation to and from school.

I wasn’t able to participate, because I was already on my own way to work, as are many parents at that time of the morning. As it happens, my son also will be attending Classical next year. Because we can afford a $62 RIPTA bus pass, he will not need to walk 2.7 miles from our East Side home to school, and will join the many students citywide who pay full fare, whether that represents pocket change or a huge expense in an already-strained family budget. For many families, daily bus fare or a monthly bus pass is just too much, and those kids walk distances that are far longer than any other school district in Rhode Island and most other comparably-sized urban districts, which provide expanded transportation and, in many cases, subsidized youth fares.

East Side parent Kim Rohm, a full-time working mother of two, is a long-time advocate for improved public school transportation in Providence who took the morning off from work to participate in the Walk in Our Shoes event. Because Ms. Rohm’s daughter also will attend Classical next year, she is thinking about the implications of school transportation both for her child and for all young people who need to choose between a long, sometimes dangerous walk and the daily impact of public transportation expenses.

“In a word, it was infuriating,” Ms. Rohm says. “First of all, although it was not the worst day of the winter, it was cold. You really need to think about what to wear on your feet to deal with the snow and ice. I could not believe the route. We traversed the 6-10 Connector, endured slippery sidewalks and, at times, walked in traffic when the sidewalks were impossible.”

Beyond the physical risks of the walk, Ms. Rohm came away with an acute sense of the opportunity gap that threatens students who are adversely impacted by transportation challenges. This came, in part, from the comments offered by students before and during the walk in which they acknowledged their responsibility to get to school on time while also being clear about the challenges of doing so. Because students who can’t afford bus passes are more likely to be chronically late to school or absent, these students’ attendance and academic records have excluded them from meaningful extracurricular learning experiences. Beyond that, the prospect of walking home at night precludes many students from participating in sports, clubs and other powerful after-school experiences – not to mention teacher-provided extra help and tutoring offered before and after school. This gap has a direct impact not only on high school success but also on students’ ability to accrue critical college – and career-readiness experiences and skills.

“It was clear that no one, including school and political officials, relishes this policy. Everyone agrees that three miles are too far to walk,” Ms. Rohm says. So how are we going to manage the financial impact of an expanded program of public transportation access? It’s challenging to advocate for increased ongoing financing to the tune $1,500,000 per year (the amount that school and RIPTA officials estimate would be required to cover transportation costs at full fare for students who live more than two miles from school). Nevertheless, the advancement of our city and state economy, powered by a capable and creative workforce, not to mention the health and welfare of hundreds of students who are forced to walk at their own physical and developmental risk, justify the short-term expense.

Jill Davidson can be reached by email or her blog.