Beyond the Big Yellow Bus

When I was in school as a child I took the bus. Nearly everyone I knew took the bus or walked. Now, my children are in the very small minority who walk or bike to school. Many children are still bussed to school, but my memories of 1985 do not include a long line of cars dropping off children every day. Families driving their children to school as the most common form of transportation seems to be a more recent thing.

Lots of things about schools and families have changed since 1985. School choice did not really exist then. In my Twin Cities suburban district children were mostly assigned schools based on their address. Some children went to Catholic school and some families probably had other reasons for attending a public school other than their assigned school, but for the most part you attended the school you were assigned. Now, that landscape is very different. Charter schools, which are public schools that are not part of the district, did not exist until 1991. Districts now have magnet schools, which are public schools within a district with a specialized curriculum like language immersion or arts. Private schools still exist and there are still school districts organized like the ones I attended in the 1980s. Now, in urban and large suburban areas children on the same block are likely to attend all different schools depending on their parents’ choices and values.

Another big change is the proportion of mothers who work. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in 1984, when I started first grade, 47 percent of mothers with children under the age 18 worked in paid employment. Today, 70 percent of mothers work. So, when I was little children were more likely to have a parent home to see them off to the bus or to meet them when they walked home. Now, before and after school care and school transportation must be figured out in a context of parent work schedules.

The maze of school transportation.

Finally, perceptions of safety, stranger danger, and society tolerance for unsupervised children has changed. Whether real or imagined, perceptions of safety impact how parents get their children to school. Examples like this family in Vancouver, Canada, where the father was barred from letting his children ride the city bus to school, abound. When other parents found out my second grader walked a few blocks alone, I received accolades and concern in equal measure. People offered to drive him so we would not have to endanger him. I spoke to several parents where bus safety was the reason they drove their children to school. For many, it was not other adults that were the concern, but fear about their children being exposed to bullying or bad language from other children. A neighbor said, “I realize it is ridiculous to drive them a mile, but they are so little and I think of all the horrible things I saw on my bus….we’re just not ready for that yet.”

So, while watching the total chaos of cars and harried parents at my children’s school, I became curious about how school choice, school transportation policies, and family circumstances and values impact how children get to school. I talked to five parents with children different kinds schools, with different aged children, and different work commitments, as well as a day care provider, find out more about those intersections.

Only one parent, Jeff Christenson, has the experience I had growing up. His two daughters attend an elementary school in Saint Paul which was one of the community schools they could choose from. They like the school and, for the most part, it meets his children’s educational needs. Both girls ride the bus to school and it only takes 20 minutes. A parent walks them to the stop in the morning and a baby-sitter meets them in the afternoon. Other families, however, made a series of trade-offs based on both their needs and values.

Hierarchy of Values – The Best School for My Kids

Beth Jackson has had children in school since 1996. Two of her three children are in their 20s and the youngest is in high school. In the last 20 years, her children attended public magnet schools, charters, and private Catholic schools. Her children walked and took the school bus at times, but for the last 11 years her children were driven to school by a parent. In addition, she has run a home day care for more than 15 years and shepherded more than 50 families through preschool (public preschool is offered in Saint Paul) and kindergarten entry.

For her family, finding the best educational environment for her children has been at the top of her hierarchy of values. “I have to be careful with my brown-skinned children. Lots of schools do poorly for kids like mine so we go out of our way to make the best choices for them.” Their best transportation situation was when her eldest daughter attended a charter that provided bussing and the stop was only three blocks from their house. They attended a private elementary located four blocks from their house and walked, but the school was not as academically rigorous as they wanted so that was only for a short while. Now, they mostly drive their youngest daughter to high school. The private school offers a discounted Metro Transit pass, but it requires two transfers and walking half a mile to a bus stop in the dark. “She has to be there at 7:30 a.m. and that’s a long walk in the dark. She also must carry sports equipment and that’s difficult. So, we drive.” She notes that very few children use the passes and almost all are poor or brown-skinned. “It’s just not socially desirable to take the bus.”

Beth acknowledges her privilege in having a choice. Her family can afford to drive them and has the flexibility to do so, as well as the ability to send them to a private high school. She experiences that interplay between privilege, school choice, and transportation options in other ways through the families in her day care.

In 2014, Saint Paul Public Schools changed the way families choose schools and the way transportation is provided. Prior to the change families could attend any school in the district and transportation was provided to that school. After the change, the city is split into Community School Zones (CSZ) and regions. Children can still attend any school, but transportation is only provided to schools within that region for families a certain distance from the school. Applications are prioritized by CSZ and Reflecting St. Paul criteria, which are about mostly related racial/ethnic and socio-economic equity.

This is super complicated and plays out for families in complicated ways. It does have a concrete impact on child care choices (or lack thereof). Families who chose a day care at least in part because it was close to their home now find they cannot safely get their children to the community school. Beth cannot walk children to school and the parents are not there, so children either must change day cares to be in the CSZ but far enough to receive bussing; chose a school that busses from the day care (not the community school), or chose a school that offers Discovery Zone, the after/before school program. Not all schools offer Discovery Zone. She says, “The change really narrowed choices for families that need day care. We already lack affordable day care options. Some families stay here because they can get bussed to the school they want, but others have had to go to more expensive centers or unlicensed care that might be substandard to get the school they want –  which might be a school three blocks from their house.”

The line up of cars at one junior high. (Photo – Kuan Teoh)

Kuan Teoh has made similar choices for his eighth-grade son. They live in an inner ring suburb and his son had attended school in that district, mostly riding the bus, until this year. However, like Beth, he felt that the school was not the best environment for his son. His son is a gifted musician and he wanted more flexibility in the school schedule so his son could spend more time with his music. Now, his son attends school at a neighboring district and Kuan drives him about 30 minutes each way. This results in two hours in the car each day for Kuan. “The trade-off is fantastic,” Kuan says. His son and their family is getting what they need, at the cost of extra time in the car. He notes that the bus ride to the junior high in his district is 50 minutes so the overall commute time is not that different. He also, like Beth, acknowledges the “luxury of being able to be an engaged parent,” realizing that most families do not have this option.

Hierarchy of Values- Community

To Nikki Nafziger the value her family finds in investing in their community school outweighs concerns she that the school does not meet her children’s needs as well as others further away. She and her husband have three children – one in junior high, one in elementary, and a preschooler. The two eldest walk to their Minneapolis community school that is three blocks from their house. “We made a conscious choice to make life sane and simple.” To keep life sane and simple, they decided her husband should mostly be a stay at home dad, noting that if he worked full-time they would need day care and likely would have to drive. It also means attending their community school and finding ways to make it work for their children.

“We’ve waffled a million times. Are we making the right decision? Sending them to a school that really meets their needs would mean driving at least 20 minutes, up to an hour, every day. And it’s not just school – it’s where their friends are. Friends and activities become far flung and it really is a commitment to driving.” For them, the trade-off means supplying extra enrichment at home that they do not get at school, as well as working closely with teachers and school administrators. “It’s work either way, but is it driving work or work engaging with your kids?”

So far, though, it’s a choice that has brought many rewards. She cites a stronger community, deeper relationships with neighbors and children, and great friendships built around the school. The school is the center of their neighborhood and creates a virtuous cycle. Part of the reason her children can walk safely to school is because of the community they built around the school. There are always adults around who know her family and children and look out for each other.

Walking to school. (Photo – Nikki Nafziger)

Yet, she recognizes that for other parents driving to a particular school is a better choice. “You have to make the best choice for your kids and your family, whatever that is.”

Hierarchy of Values – Both Community and the Best School

When Kelly Browne and her husband were deciding where to send their now third-grade son to school they wanted to continue with the Spanish immersion experience he received in preschool. At the time, they lived in North Minneapolis and the only Spanish immersion offered by Minneapolis Public Schools is in southwest Minneapolis. Realizing the bus ride would be too long and wanted to attend school near their home, they moved to an inner ring suburb that offered the program they wanted.

Although they moved less than two miles from the desired school, things have not gone the way they envisioned and she drives him to school. In kindergarten and first grade her son rode the bus, but the one and half mile distance took 45 minutes. This was a common complaint from parents – short distances often take a very long time. My son’s bus ride in kindergarten was more than an hour each direction and we lived about four miles from the school. Two hours a day is a long time to spend on a bus for a five year old! Kelly explains, “Nothing good came from that bus ride. The only time he has gotten into trouble for behavior was on the bus and there was quite a bit of bullying. They are unsupervised and a lot can happen in that hour and half.” Her son was stressed by the experience and began disliking school.

She tried to get a flexible schedule at work so she could drop him off, but the 9 a.m. school start time was too late and, ultimately, it did not work for her. She also noted how stressful the drop-off and pick-ups were because of all the other parents driving. Now, her son attends before and after school child care program. She can drop him off at 8 a.m., work a regular schedule, and picks him up after the end of the day rush. Essentially, she is paying for child care to avoid traffic. We do the same. We bike or walk to school in the morning and have our children in an after-school program, partially due to work schedules, and partially to avoid the rush.

She feels the distance, although only a mile and half, is too far for him to bike as an eight-year old, especially since he must navigate several busy intersections. She is hopeful that he will be able to bike himself when he starts sixth grade. He will be at a different school, two miles from their house, but he will be older and the route is safer.

What does it mean for policy makers?

My point is not to make a prescription for how schools should provide transportation or to say there is a right or wrong decision regarding school transportation. What is best for different families is different. As we think about transportation policies, including the built environment around the school and how schools provide transportation, a few thoughts stand out.

Very few children bike or walk to school.

First, every parent I spoke with was aware of how privilege impacts their ability to make choices. Stay at home parents and parents in good economic circumstances have access to different schools and different transportation options than other parents. Even Nikki’s choice to attend a community school and find other ways to provide enrichment comes down to her family’s ability to provide that enrichment – it’s not just the privilege of having a car and time. What about families whose choices are limited by money, time, or circumstance, like a rigid work schedule?

Second, travel times on busses seem ridiculously long and the lack of supervision leads many parents to decide that the bus, even if available, is not a good option. Also (preaching to the choir), our streets are not built in a way that allow children to safely walk to school. A common refrain I here is, “My children could walk to school, but for that dangerous intersection.” Others noted that the walk is fine, but traffic around the school from parents driving is the dangerous part. If we want fewer families to drive, there needs to be a better way to provide bussing and improve safety for walkers.

Finally, parenting is personal and driven by values. Each story here reflected some values preference. As policy-makers consider transportation policy, the need to be cognizant of values and the trade-offs families are making.

Dana DeMaster

About Dana DeMaster

Dana DeMaster, MPP, is a program evaluator and researcher for human services programs who lives and bikes in Saint Paul. When she’s not analyzing data, she can be found rabble-rousing for neighborhood bike improvements in Saint Paul, playing Legos with her two children, or sewing practical things. You can find some of her other writing on the Grease Rag and Wrench blog.

25 thoughts on “Beyond the Big Yellow Bus

  1. Monte Castleman

    Back in the early 1980s I went to the local elementary school. At the end of the day we had two lines, one for “walkers’ and one for “bussers”. There was no line for “picked up by parents”. We did have a neighbor that would give us a ride, but only if it was really cold, or snowing. Unless we lived very close to school, we rode bicycles (on the sidewalks, most certainly not on the 4-Lane Death Roads) when it was nice, but once it got below 60 or so our bicycles were put away for the year and we walked.

    As we grew older it became obvious the Bloomington school district was a terrible fit for us. This was before open enrollment and charter schools, so our family basically stretched itself to the absolute limit financially to send us to Minnehaha Academy. (This wasn’t uncommon either. A number of parents wanted the school to implement uniforms so they wouldn’t have to spend money on school clothes for their children, and there wouldn’t be that distinction between the rich kids and the not so rich). Again not many got rides from their parents. Most were dropped off by their parents. Most kids walked if they happened to live in the neighborhood, or rode the bus. Sometimes my parents have to drive in if I had an after-school event or missed the bus but this was uncommon.

  2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    Ack! These transportation choices sounds horrible to me. It’s going to take a lot for Tiny Baby not to go to the nearest community schools, where I can drop her in the cargo bike and/or she can walk or bike when she gets older. There’s a scary number of factors involved!

    But being old, it’s seriously weird to me when I see a group of parents standing around the bus stop with the kids. We never had that.

    Like you and Monte, I don’t remember anyone being dropped off by parents (although I did ride with my dad when I went to the school her worked at).

    1. Monte Castleman

      There was quite a bit of fear and paranoia even in my day- besides the threat of nuclear war with the Soviets, on a more local level I recall this idea that there were all sorts of bad men driving around wanting to lure us into their cars with candy (as well as the whole poisoned Halloween candy thing) being drilled into us. But the amount of helicopter parenting we seem to have now as well as the extent of organized activities is like nothing I experienced. After about 8 or so we all roamed the neighborhood by ourselves.

      1. Justin Doescher

        Yeah, Jacob Wetterling was around my age and that sent a chill down every parent’s spine. But getting a ride to school was still pretty uncommon.

      2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        Right. We were the first generation of stranger danger – often derived from dubious rumors/beliefs – and yet we were expected to fend for ourselves. I remember walking home in the rain in second grade because I missed the bus (okay, I had detention). Seems like we turned out okay and mostly didn’t get abducted or anything.

        1. Rosa

          it took a generation for the change in feelings to cause a change in behavior – a kid actually got abducted, famously, in my school district while I was a student there (West Des Moines, his name was Johnny Gosch) and yes, we still walked to school unsupervised. They told us to choose a buddy and stick with them.

          A lot of other bad stuff happened too, though – I got hit by a car once on my bike on the way to school, and once I wiped out and gave myself a concussion (got to school and puked all over, had to stay overnight in the hospital.) My mom was a SAHM so she was at least available if we could stagger home.

          The bad winter we had a few years ago, when it was -10 a bunch of days, the buses ran really irregularly. An 8 year old neighbor came and knocked on my door because he’d missed his bus, his parents had gone to work,his older brother’s bus to a different school had come, he didn’t have a key to get back into his house. I called the district and they said there was nothing they could do. His school was several neighborhoods away. I gave him a ride – the district said definitely don’t do that without permission from his parents, but they weren’t answering their phones (probably not allowed to at work) so I just did. I couldn’t believe the schools didn’t have some sort of backup plan though, especially in the middle of winter.

  3. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Great article Dana.

    For some perspective… There are no school buses in The Netherlands. About 42% of children bicycle to school and 30% walk. These numbers are both down slightly from the past but have risen over the past two years. The remainder use public transit, private auto, or taxi. The decline in walking and bicycling is largely attributed to immigrants. Programs to encourage them to ride bicycles are slowly improving things.

    Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Germany are surprisingly close to NL. Interestingly, Finland is rather low for walking and bicycling in the EU but still much higher than the US.

    The Netherlands has what is effectively completely open enrollment (though I believe based on vouchers). For as long as anyone can remember, children have been able to attend any school they want anywhere in the nation. Because of this it is not unusual for children to ride long distances by themselves to school. I know parent’s whose children ride 17 miles each way.

    Also, there’s this:

    The US is seeming almost third world by comparison.

    1. Rosa

      we biked with my child a lot the first few years he was in school (the Greenway goes basically right to Seward elementary) but it is dark and really cold during school commute time for a good chunk of the school year.

      That is where I learned my special hatred for the dumb “the rule is cars will always stop for trail crossings but only if they can’t pretend they don’t see you” Greenway crossings.

  4. Justin Doescher

    Seems like people choose certain schools and drive their kids to those schools because they care about their kids….which is great, but then they ignore the importance of safe streets for biking and walking and supervision on school buses, which would benefit ALL children. Seems like our shared goal of providing a good world for the next generation has been corrupted by our own individual comforts and ambitions.

    1. Rosa

      maybe the people who don’t currently have school-age children, who don’t have the fraught decision of which school to go to, should take the lead on making the streets safe, instead of dropping it (and the general state of the public education system, which school choice often makes worse too) onto the people with the most complicated decision making process. The parents choosing far away schools are balancing a million different values in their choice. The people veering around school buses so they don’t have to wait 3 minutes, or stopping their cars after they’ve already entered the crosswalk, or trying to drive through a tiny gap in the crowd of schoolkids crossing a street, are only balancing kids safety vs. speed of driving. It ought to be a pretty basic decision and yet I see people fail it every day.

  5. Jack

    At the risk of sounding like my father (“I walked twenty miles to school in the SNOW!”) I used to walk two or three blocks to Kindergarten. Usually I went with my two older sisters, (second and third-graders), or with my best-friend-next-door. But sometimes, all by myself, if no one else was around. This was in the late 1960’s. As I recall, this was the norm for most families back in the olden days, it wasn’t that my parents were neglectful –at least not in this case.

    Later on, (1970’s) we walked about a half-mile to and from the bus stop, sometimes getting a ride there, if the weather was bad. Again, traveling in small packs, but with no parents hovering around.

    The bus rides could be awful, depending on which bullies were riding with you. (I’m talking to YOU, Mark Oelsen!) I suspect this is why parents nowadays drop their kids off at school: bad memories of the school bus hoodlums!

    1. Dana DeMasterDanaD

      I heard that from a lot of parents. Either memories of the bus were bad or their child experienced bullying so they opt out of the bus. Another thing is that bus rides seem so long! My son’s kindergarten ride was two hours. Kelly is two miles from school, but the bus is 45 minutes each way.

      As to walking, I suspect day care is a large factor. A licensed day care provider cannot allow children to leave without an adult. In the 1960s there weren’t as many kids in day care. My children walk or bike and I would love to let them do it themselves, but they have to cross West 7th Street. They do get a wide range of our neighborhood to run unsupervised, but aren’t allowed to cross major roads.

      1. Laurie

        Where I grew up in WI, we had to cross the city’s busiest street to get to our elementary school. The city or school district employed a crossing guard ( an older woman who lived in the house by the designated crosswalk). She would accompany all the kids across the signaled intersection in the morning and afternoon. I would love to see something like this on W 7th.

    2. John Charles Wilson

      Yeah, I was bullied too on the bus. So bad I chose to walk in junior and senior high even though I lived far enough away to be bused. If I had money, I took the city bus. This was 1979-83.

  6. Craig

    Several years ago I was waiting for the city bus and two Anwatin students were waiting as well. A cop pulled up and arrested them both for truancy, though if they caught the bus they would not have been late. I spoke with the boys the following day at the bus stop. Their mothers had to leave work to pick them up at the police station. Our school system should be funded to make sure students can get to and from school safely.

    1. John Charles Wilson

      I hope the parents sue the city and the cops involved if that is true.

      How are you truant if school hasn’t started yet?

      One big difference, not mentioned in the article, between the 1970s/1980s and now is that if you were late for school, the penalty was usually just after-school detention. It wasn’t considered truancy unless you had a clear intent to skip school.

  7. David MarkleDavid Markle

    Worthwhile article, but I must confess that it makes me feel glad to have grown up in a small town that enjoyed its own K-12 public school system. Everyone could walk to and from school except for the farm kids who rode school buses. The social environment tended towards both diversity and the egalitarian.

    Sadly, due to school district consolidations, those conditions no longer hold true for many students in rural areas except for those in county seats and other more regional centers. Of course there can be some compensating advantages such as better access to foreign language, calculus, orchestra and well equipped science labs.

  8. John Charles Wilson

    It looks like some obvious reforms which would help things are:

    1. “Bus aides” on school buses to put a lid on bullying and bad behaviour. Maybe it would cost too much to hire some, but maybe parents could volunteer?

    2. Change the day care law to allow children to leave without an adult if pre-authorised by the parents.

    3. Why does a school bus take so long for such short distances? 45 minutes for a mile and a half? An hour for four miles? It sounds like better route planning is needed….

    1. Rosa

      The routes are inherently pretty convoluted. They don’t want kids more than a block from home, they don’t want them crossing busy streets, etc. I think my kid’s school bus stops about every other block. And the kids/routes change daily – it depends if kids are inafter school program, which parents house they’re going to, etc. When I was a kid they just opened the doors and let us go. I watched my kid’s elementary teachers have to know where each kid was headed each day after school.

      In Minneapolis we also have problems in snowy winters when there’s no one-side parking ban in place. A few years ago the kids got off the bus about every afternoon with stories about the bus getting stuck (they actually changed our route to avoid one hill – the kids from the bottom of the hill stop had to walk a block up the hill to a place the bus wouldn’t get stuck on ice). It can be a problem just from the streets being parked up, even in clear weather – I’ve seen buses have to back up half a block because two tried to drive opposite ways down the same street when there were cars parked on both sides (this is espeically bad around South High, but that’s not the only place.)

  9. David Greene

    Very well written, kudos!

    We’re going through this agonizing process right now with our preschooler. It’s so easy for some people to judge the school choice of others without knowing a thing about the child’s situation and the options available. I really try not to criticize the choices other parents make. I absolutely hate the fact that “did not send kids to public school” is a political gotcha in the DFL.

    And the transportation is messed up. We can’t yellow bus to certain schools but people a block away can. We can’t get to those same schools reasonably by public transit, so to attend those schools we’re left with driving. Theoretically on some days when mom and dad aren’t both working we could bike. I’d like to see that happen, but we probably will end up at a school where that is not practical.

    I don’t know what the answer is. It’s a very complex question and people are going to weigh pros and cons differently. It is, as I said above, agonizing.

    1. Dana DeMasterDanaD

      Yes! And, in St Paul at least, your preschool and kindergarten choices have impacts all the way through high school. What elementary you attend funnels the children into certain junior highs and then to high schools. While it’s great that classmates stay together through those transitions, a good elementary may lead to a junior high that isn’t a good fit. Frustratingly, the day care you chose at 9 months old may impact your preschool and kindergarten options. I can tell you that when we were choosing a day care, kindergarten was the last thing on our minds! Yet, my son was able to attend the preschool he did because busing was available to our day care (not our home).

      Part of the reason we chose a k-12 charter was that there would be fewer transitions, including transportation transitions. I hope that in a couple of years they can both walk the four blocks alone – right now I don’t have confidence in their ability to navigate West 7th Street, let alone the traffic around the school. Just yesterday a mother ran a stop sign while we were crossing on bikes, nearly hit us. My almost nine year old saw it and reacted, but my kindergartner failed to anticipate it.

      1. David Greene

        Indeed, the “destiny at four years old” is a huge stressor. Honestly, my biggest fear about our child walking/biking by himself to school is exactly what you describe: drivers. That dwarfs fears of abduction, though that’s there too.

  10. Dana DeMasterDanaD

    Interesting article on school choice in today’s Strib. Two things standout. First, re-segregation as a product of parents chosing culturally-specific schools. Second, while our decision to go to a charter was multi-faceted and had more positive “pull” factors related to the school we chose rather than negative “push” factors related to St Paul Public Schools, their efforts described in the article to attract families who left do not address any of the reasons we left.

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