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Nearly every school day, buses transport more than 2,500 District 65 students to magnet schools, or to programs not offered at the attendance-area school, or to their attendance-area schools whose walk-routes are too far or are “hazardous” so that walking is not recommended. Students can walk up to 1.5 miles to school if there are no hazards. A busy street without a crossing guard and the absence of a sidewalk on the recommended walk route are examples of hazards.
The District also buses students to programs offered only at certain schools; for example, the Spanish-English two-way immersion (TWI) program for Spanish-speaking students, certain special education programs, and English as a Second Language (ESL) programs.
In some instances, such as when a student has received a permissive transfer to a non-attendance area school, the family pays the cost of transportation, either on a sliding scale or at full cost; in other instances, where busing is provided because of distance or hazard, transportation to the attendance-area school is provided free of charge.
At its Dec. 7, 2015, meeting, the Finance Committee of the School Board began to look at the 185 daily, or almost daily, bus routes to see if any could be shortened or eliminated. At that meeting, administrators said if families would be willing for their children to walk a little farther to a bus stop, one or more stops could be eliminated and time spent on the bus would be shortened. They also said if a hazard has been eliminated – for example, by the installation of a sidewalk – then perhaps some students could walk instead of ride the bus to school.
After that meeting, Karen Smilowitz, a Kingsley parent, volunteered to conduct a study about traffic congestion and the possible elimination of one or more bus routes. Without knowing at that time the extent of that offer and the status of Dr. Smilowitz – she is a professor at Northwestern University and a world-renowned expert in transportation studies – the District took her up on the offer, said Superintendent Paul Goren.
Dr. Smilowitz and some of her students are conducting a three-part study of the District’s transportation policies and systems, focusing only on the 585 students who are bused from their attendance-area schools because of hazards and who are bused for programs not offered at a student’s attendance-area school. The study will not cover the students bused to attendance-area schools for distance.
At the May 23 School Board meeting, Dr. Smilowitz presented the first part of the study, an analysis of the current state of transportation at the District, in which she and her students had compiled information on ridership patterns and results of a parent survey about transportation concerns and preferences, which had been offered online and on paper.
Busing for Programs
“What we found,” said Dr. Smilowitz, “is there are students moving around District 65 a lot.”
“We needed a way to look at all routes together,” Dr. Smilowitz said. Describing what is termed a “convex hull,” she said, “think of a set of points [the route] and think of the smallest rubber band that will contain that area. … You can see that a route that covers a large area should be long and one that covers a small area should not be long – or you could say, for a given school, the geographic area [of the routes] should not overlap. This is the basis of our study.”
Dr. Smilowitz said she thought some efficiencies could be found in the routes for Bessie Rhodes magnet school, since one route has 68 riders, and another only 12. Still, she said, since the geographic population of magnet schools is fluid year-by-year, “saving a bus [route] at the magnet-school level doesn’t save you as much as saving a bus at one of the attendance-area schools.”
The attendance-area schools appeared to offer more opportunities for efficiencies, Dr. Smilowitz said, but those might have to be tied to policy changes. She said the initial idea was that the sheer numbers of students bused would be a key issue to be addressed – the 585 children who travel quite a distance from their attendance-area schools for programmatic reasons such as ESL, TWI and special education. She added, though, “We’re really finding that that’s not the case. … It’s those extreme points that are pulling the convex hull. But those ‘extreme points’ are children. … How do we analyze this from a data perspective that ‘This is a position we don’t want to be in’? … We need to start thinking about individual students.”
Busing for ‘Hazards’
Dr. Smilowitz and her students also looked at students who were eligible to be bused because of hazards on their recommended walks. “We wanted to look at ‘Why would you choose or not choose to use the bus if you were eligible?’” she said. In many cases, they found, if the hazards were to be removed, the students “are going to be transported by car,” thus increasing congestion at the school.
Although there was a low turnout for the survey, the information gathered showed some parents were willing to accept some changes: Some parents said they would be willing to pay for transportation. Some also indicated they would be willing to have their children walk one additional block to a bus stop – which could allow the District to eliminate a stop on some routes.
“This is what we observed in analyzing the current state of transportation,” said Dr. Smilowitz. “It’s the low-hanging fruit. Over the summer we will be looking to see what happens if you reduce the number of stops on a route. Stage 3 will look at some of the larger gains you can get in transportation if you look outside of transportation.”
“Are your routes efficient? No. But if they’re effective – getting the learning outcomes you want, maybe it’s OK. I can say the decisions around how students are placed in the two-way immersion (TWI) program and ESL are driving the bus routes,” Dr. Smilowitz said.
Dr. Smilowitz also suggested to the Board, “When you think about which students go to ESL, TWI and other programs, also think about school cohesiveness” – keeping as many students as possible in their attendance-area schools.
In deciding on the location of various programs, the Board has taken into account policies and building capacity. For example, in selecting the location for the TWI programs, the Board has focused on schools with large numbers of Spanish-speaking students in the attendance area, who might attend TWI classes. The Board has also taken into account the pros and cons of having a single strand or multiple strands of TWI in the same building, which includes a consideration of the capacity of the school building.
Further, the District tries to keep its special education programs in place, not transferring them to other schools for space or other reasons, so the most vulnerable students will not have to change schools.
Dr. Goren said “One of the many take-aways is that something’s going to have to change if we want to get effectiveness and cost-effectiveness. And yet we have to be sensitive to the goals of our program and the policies governing our programs. That’s a fascinating intersection. [We have] someone who’s a worldwide expert on logistics helping us think about where we have to make some decisions in our policies.”
Added Dr. Smilowitz, “And that’s where it can be challenging.”