Category Archives: School Transportation

“I’m So Thankful I Had a Choice”: Q&A With LaVonia Abavana on Camden Schools

When we launched Eight Cities in 2018, a multimedia storytelling website which became our most popular project of the year, readers loved the close look at system leaders who oversaw dramatic changes in their districts. But we also heard a desire for more local voices — including parents, principals, and educators — to better understand how system-wide reforms were experienced by those on the ground. This conversation with Camden parent LaVonia Abavana launches a series that explores school reform and choice from a variety of perspectives in advance of the 2020 relaunch of Eight Cities.

When the state of New Jersey took control of Camden Public Schools in 2013, Camden community members had plenty of reasons to be skeptical given the district’s long history of corruption and financial and academic struggles. As our profile of Camden in EightCities.org explains, state control also introduced Renaissance Schools, a model where nonprofit partners take over schools on the verge of closure. These schools retain the existing student body and must serve students in their neighborhood.

LaVonia Abavana, a Camden native with three children of her own, had never heard of Renaissance Schools when she was faced with a tough choice for her youngest son. 

In this conversation, she tells us about navigating school options with a special-needs child and offers advice for parents.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

I had a chance to read a moving piece you wrote about your son KingSebastian. Can you share more of his education story?

When [KingSebastian] was going to his old school, in Camden Public Schools, we had a really, really hard time with bullying because of his Tourette Syndrome. We dealt with bullying from every level of leadership. Nobody understood what it was, and he was getting sanctioned for it and punished for it. His confidence was really, really low. Even though I tried to give him positive talks and everything, he just did not want to go to school.

After two years of trying to work things out with no success, I did a vigorous search for a different school. I talked to my neighbors and the community members I see every day, I went on Camden Enrollment, I looked at the Camden Enrollment booklet that shows you all of the schools’ growth rates and academics, and so forth. I’d never heard of a Renaissance School before, and I was kind of scared. But after calling [a Renaissance School network in Camden],* I felt kind of confident. So I put him in [a Renaissance School in Camden].  Continue reading

If Cities Want Robust School Choice, They Need Robust Public Transit

More and more cities are becoming “high-choice” districts that provide students with many school options beyond the one assigned to their zip code. In places like DC, New York, and New Orleans, families can choose from a diverse array of school types, including traditional district, charter, and private schools.

But providing a wide range of school options for families also presents a related challenge: how to get kids to and from schools that are across town, rather than across the street.

School transportation plays a critical — and often overlooked — role in high-choice districts. Students in these places may experience longer commutes, but families may not have the resources or capacity to transport students across town on their own, making access to school choice inequitable. And for districts, providing the level of transportation service needed to support myriad school options can be an untenably expensive and logistically complicated proposition.

As a result, many high-choice districts, including several of those profiled in Bellwether’s Eight Cities project, leverage existing municipal public transit as part of their school transportation strategy. For example, in Washington, DC, the district does not provide any yellow bus service for general education students, with limited exceptions for certain student populations. Instead, public, charter, and private school students ages 5-21 who are DC residents can ride for free on Metrobus, DC Circulator, and Metrorail within the city through the “Kids Ride Free” program. Students can use their public transit passes as many times as they want and at all hours of the day.

New York City uses a combination of yellow bus service and public transit to provide transportation for public, charter, and private school students. Students are eligible for either yellow bus service or free public transit passes if they live a half mile or more from their school. The district provides yellow bus service for some students in grades K-6, as well as students enrolled in public schools of choice that live within the same borough as their school. All NYC students who live a half mile or more from their school are eligible for free public transit passes. Student MetroCards can be used on subways and buses for three trips and three transfers each school day, enough to travel to school, to an after-school activity, and then back home. Continue reading

Why Do So Few Kids Walk or Bike to School in My State?

When I was a teacher in Connecticut, most of my students walked to school. I taught just a few blocks from downtown, so that made walking a pretty reasonable option. However, that wasn’t the norm in the rest of New England, and it would be really exceptional in my current home state of Kentucky. In fact, only 3% of students walk or bike to school in the “East South Central” states of Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky.

Walking and biking to school varies by region.

Nationally, about 10% of students walk or bike to school every day, but actual likelihood of walking to school varies significantly by region. Why are students in my region ranked lowest in the country in active forms of transportation, and what are the “Pacific” states of California, Oregon, and Washington, with the highest rates of students walking or biking to school, doing that we aren’t?

Continue reading

Media: “The Red Lights Stopping Yellow School Buses from Going Green” in WIRED

Today, I have a new op-ed in WIRED about what can be learned from recent programs piloting the use of electric school buses. These buses are better for the environment and students’ health, but currently make up less than one percent of the 480,000 school buses operating in the United States.

The piece was informed by research from our recent report, “From Yellow to Green: Reducing School Transportation’s Impact on the Environment,” which examines several concrete strategies for making school transportation more environmentally friendly, including transitioning from diesel school buses to electric ones. Continue reading

Three Lessons From Our New Briefs on School Transportation and Safety, Choice, and the Environment

Safe, reliable, and equitable school transportation is essential for a strong education system. But too often transportation is sidelined in education policy discussions.

yellow sign reading "SCHOOL BUS STOP AHEAD"

This is a major oversight. Here’s why:

  1. Strong school transportation systems are absolutely essential for equitable access to schools. The average distance between students and schools has grown since the days of walking uphill both ways to school, and we know that low-income families are less likely to have access to a car or the scheduling flexibility to accompany students to and from school every day. Without safe, reliable school transportation solutions — whether that’s the bus, walking, biking, public transit, or something else — low-income students are more likely to be absent or late from school, spend more time on school commutes, or be put in unsafe situations.
  2. Building strong school transportation systems will require new kinds of collaboration that go outside of schools’ typical partners. For example, the success of electric school bus pilots so far has depended on extensive collaboration among willing schools and districts, bus vendors, transportation operators, and public utilities. And for safe walking and biking routes to school to thrive, infrastructure investments from local leaders and public works agencies are essential. Forging these new partnerships will extend school transportation opportunities, but might also add more to schools’ plates.
  3. New technologies and methods, like alternatively fueled buses and data-driven methods for mapping school commutes, show a great deal of potential. However, some of the most effective solutions are also costly, and the resources available for school transportation in many states and communities are simply insufficient to bring promising innovations to scale without compromising on educational essentials. Ultimately, substantial, focused investment will be necessary to bring about real innovations in the world of school transportation.

This week, Bellwether releases three new policy briefs to make sure school transportation gets the attention it deserves in wider education policy conversations: Continue reading