Friday, September 7, 2012

Getting to School: The Challenging Connections between Absenteeism and Transportation - October 2012 East Side Monthly column

This is a slightly expanded version of the column that I wrote for October 2012's East Side Monthly, which will be out later this month. Because I cannot ramble on forever on my ESM page about absenteeism, achievement, transportation, and related issues, the thoughts below don't nearly tell a whole story--lots more to say, and I hope we (you as commenters and me as blogger) can do that in the coming weeks and months.


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. By the time we’re done with our three kids’ passages through the early elementary school years, we will have experienced nine consecutive years of little kids going to King, from which we live 0.9 miles. According to the Providence Public Schools’ transportation policy, my kids are not eligible for transportation by school bus. We’d need to live a mile or more from school in order to qualify for bus transportation to and from school, and 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, with help from babysitters, flexible work schedules, friends, and support from PPSD for our request for bus passes to the JCC, where our kids participate in afterschool programming (see this post from earlier this week for more on that), we make it work.

In so doing, we have much in common with thousands families citywide who live inside their kids’ schools’ 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. Work demands or the poor health of a parent or other family member may pose problems. 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, as reported in July 2012 in, 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--it’s hard to imagine that it would not--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. What we need next is increased commitment from the state level to fund RIPTA passes for all high school student on an ongoing basis.

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. While the walking school bus idea is less expensive than busing, it does have associated costs for logistical coordination, communication, training volunteers, and more. In order to spread the walking school bus concept to more neighborhoods, we need to identify consistent sources of funding and infrastructure.

Still, it's is a splendid idea, a powerful example of how we can pull together to ensure kids are in school, reduce isolation, provide meaningful support to families, get some exercise and fresh air, reduce dependence on energy resources, increase pedestrian safety, and demonstrate that we are willing to be creative and committed as we improve our city’s schools.

For more, here are data stories on the effects of absenteeism in Providence from the Mayor's Children and Youth Cabinet:

Elementary school:

Middle school:

High school and beyond:


  1. I'm not really getting this JCC bus pass thing, and I'm trying not to get pissed off about it. The first post on the issue just made it sound like the point was to just let kids who already qualified for bussing to get off at the JCC instead of home.

    Can you also get bussed to the JCC now if you don't otherwise qualify for bussing? Is this an actual policy that parents can use throughout the city, or just a perk for the East Siders?

  2. Not an East Side perk (come on, Tom!). It's an actual policy...or it was, and perhaps still is. It's not clear right now, at least not to me. The deal is that if your kid gets before or after school care offsite, s/he is eligible for bus transportation from or to that location. If your kid doesn't qualify for a bus pass, as mine do not, s/he can get a seat on a bus that has more than 20% capacity if that bus is already going to that location. They won't build in a special stop but if there's already a stop and if there is room on the bus, they will add your kid in.

    That said, last year, PPSD posted notice on its transportation web page that this practice was no longer possible. A number of affected families (including mine) testified at a school board meeting about this, and the board and superintendent agreed to continue to grant bus passes in this circumstance when the route and capacity allows. I vividly remember Sue Lusi saying that the district needed to value people as much as it valued its policies.

    This applies citywide, and part of the reason why I'm posting about it is to make sure that people are aware. Thanks for your question because this is worth spelling out and reminds me to ask whether they can rephrase the policy to reflect actual practice.

  3. I will also say that every year, it's a total roll of the dice for us. We don't ever know if there will be a stop or capacity on the bus. I never can take it for granted. When it's worked out, it's been a tremendous help but it really isn't anything we can count on year to year.