RACINE — A three-mile round-trip trudge in the bitter Wisconsin winter. A long city bus ride with transfers. Work schedule changes to accommodate a parent drop-off. These are some of the issues facing Racine Unified students and parents who live just within the two-mile radius where the district does not provide free transportation to students.
Providing busing to more students has been on the minds of Racine Unified administrators and school board members for several years now. And parental concerns about the two-mile walking radius span back decades. Although Unified is currently following state law, which only requires the district to provide transportation for students living two miles or more from their boundary school, Unified has been considering providing transportation for K-8 students living from 1.5 miles to 1.9 miles from their schools.
This year, Sarah Goines, who lives near the Golden Rondelle on the SC Johnson headquarters campus, had to change her work schedule so she could drop off her two children, ages 11 and 12, at Walden III every morning.
If she didn’t, the children would have to pay to ride the city bus, making several transfers, or walk 1.9 miles to the school, according to Google Maps.
“I don’t feel comfortable having them walk that far,” Goines said.
Walden III was moved this year from 1012 Center St., just a couple of blocks from the Goines residence, to 2340 Mohr Ave.
Although she drops them off at school, they still typically ride the city bus home. Bus passes are not cheap, at $65 a month for each student.
She tries her best to find someone to pick them up, but she can’t always make it happen.
Lynn Degarmo walks her two children, in kindergarten and second grade, the 1.5 miles to and from Janes Elementary School, 1425 N. Wisconsin St., each day.
The walk takes from 35 to 45 minutes.
“They cry because it’s too far,” she said.
Degarmo, a single mother of four, does not have a car and said she can’t afford to pay for the district’s optional busing.
Unified offers optional busing for children who live within two miles of their school, if the child can make it to a stop for a bus that already travels to his or her school and there is an empty seat on that bus. The charge for yearly service per family is $300, an amount that Stacy Tapp, Unified’s chief of communication and community engagement, called a “nominal” fee.
Degarmo’s second grader previously went to Giese, 5120 Byrd Ave., which was a short walk from her home at the time. But she moved to the area of Ninth Street and Washington Avenue before this school year. She’s most concerned about the walking conditions come winter.
“If it’s really freezing cold, I’m not going to walk them out there,” she said.
Aligning start times
The district has been looking into providing transportation to more students for the past few years, while also considering aligning its schools’ start and end times. But Unified has pushed off a decision on start and end times more than once. A committee looking into the issue is expected to present its findings to the board this school year, after asking for more time to develop a recommendation.
School Board President Robert Wittke Jr. said that district research found that making busing changes wouldn’t be as “astronomically expensive” as previously thought.
However, he added, more research was needed to make a solid link between providing transportation to more students and better attendance, resulting in higher achievement.
“The board has always been very focused on looking to support and put things in place that have an impact on achievement,” Wittke said.
He added that the board would continue to consider providing more busing, especially as it takes another look at aligning start and end times.
Providing more busing is still listed in Unified Chief Financial Officer Marc Duff’s budget projection as an ongoing but unfunded desire of the School Board. The cost to provide busing to K-8 students who live 1.5 to 1.9 miles from their school is estimated to be about $415,000 a year.
Unified’s annual budget is typically more than $300 million.
The importance of busing
A 2017 study published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, a peer-reviewed scholarly journal, found that kindergarten students who took the bus were 3 percentage points less likely to be chronically absent that those who got to school any other way, including being driven by parents. The study, by Michael Gottfried, an assistant professor of education at the University of California-Santa Barbara, also found that kindergarten students who rode the bus were absent fewer days per school year than their peers.
Though the numbers are rough, the Chicago Tribune reported in July that attendance for middle-school students eligible for a new busing program in East Aurora School District 131 rose by 27 percent in its first year.
The 2017-18 school year was the first time that district supplied busing to students who live more than 1.5 miles from their school. It previously provided busing only to special education students and those who attended a program at Aurora University.
At present, Unified provides transportation for about 9,200 students, including 1,300 private and parochial students. That leaves about 11,000 students who attend Unified and do not ride a bus. However, some of those students have elected to attend schools other than their “boundary school” and are not provided transportation; others may voluntarily get rides from family members or drive themselves to school.
Lolli Haws, who served as Unified superintendent from July 2013 to May 2018, when Eric Gallien took over, was passionate about the busing issue. She believed that lack of transportation, especially for very young students, contributed to increased absences from school and corresponding lower achievement.
But the busing issue was tied to start and end times, and the district was not able to come to a decision on their alignment before Haws left the district.
Although there are no data available to directly correlate lack of busing under two miles to lower achievement and absences, Racine Unified came close last year to being docked for attendance on its state report card. In 2016-17, Unified had a 12.5 percent absentee rate, just under the goal of less than 13 percent.
Per state law, Unified does provide transportation to students living within the two miles if the student lives in or must cross an unusually dangerous area to get to school. According to Unified, an unusually dangerous area could have no safe walking area, a narrow shoulder on a road or highway, a high traffic count with fast speed limits or a lack of crossing guards.
An area within the Unified district considered unusually hazardous is Spring Street between Spring Valley and State Street, Tapp said.
Laura Hernandez’s 12-year-old son attends Walden III. Last year, it was a two-block walk. But now that the school has relocated, he’s 1.2 miles away.
She tried to get optional transportation from the district for him, but said she was denied as there was no space available.
At present, her mother, who also babysits her infant niece, drives him to and from school.
She does not feel comfortable allowing him to walk that distance.
“Our neighborhood is not really nice,” she said.