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Last week, thousands of D.C. families received the results of the MySchoolDC lottery, learning—after weeks of anxious anticipation—what their morning and afternoon commutes will look like next year. Transportation may not be the number one issue on parents’ minds as they make their choices, but perhaps it should be.
Back in 1969, 48 percent of U.S. kids aged 5 to 14 usually got to school on their own steam—walking or riding a bike. These days, it’s more like 13 percent. Kids who get fresh air and exercise on their way to school arrive more ready to learn. Physical activity has been shown to improve attention span, classroom behavior, and academic achievement.
Jennifer Hefferan, who runs the D.C. Department of Transportation’s Safe Routes to School program—the local chapter of a national effort to encourage active transportation—says when she started the job, the evidence of the benefits of physical activity was merely anecdotal. “You’d hear principals saying, ‘I love Walk to School Day because I don’t see kids in my principal’s office,’” she says. “Now there’s actual research supporting that.”
Spanish researchers found that a walk to school of more than 15 minutes improved cognitive function, especially in girls. They noted that the plasticity of the brain during adolescence makes it an especially important time to stimulate cognitive function. Walking and biking can also help stem the childhood obesity epidemic and reduce the incidence of diabetes.
The benefits don’t just accrue to kids, either. Nationally, 10 to 14 percent of morning rush hour traffic is attributable to school drop-offs, making everyone’s morning commute more hectic. Double-parking, chaotic merging, sudden U-turns, and blocked crosswalks outside of schools create hazardous conditions (and further discourage parents from letting their kids walk). Few District schools have parking facilities available for parents doing dropoff and pickup.
Plus, any family that finds itself criss-crossing the city every morning and evening knows how grueling travel routines eat up valuable hours of family time.
“[My husband] Danny and I, every night, have to think about the next day,” says Alys Willman, whose two sons go to the Latin American Montessori Bilingual Public Charter School—but on two different campuses. “We have two kids who get out of school within 15 minutes of each other on opposite sides of the city, and they both have activities that they need to do, and everybody has to get home by 6.
“And I’m usually sitting in a meeting in my office, texting different people just keeping track of where they are, making sure they got to where they’re supposed to go and that the bike attachment is where it needs to be and that the car is where it needs to be,” says Willman, who lives in Petworth and works downtown. “It’s a lot of mental energy.”
Last spring, city leaders rejected a proposal to implement a citywide high school lottery without geographic preference. But that’s still the way it works for the 44 percent of the District’s schoolkids who attend charter schools, which are forbidden from expressing any preference for children who live nearby. (Charter school enrollment is around six percent nationally.)
A 2014 study by the 21st Century School Fund, a local nonprofit that works to improve D.C. public school facilities, found that although the vast majority of D.C. elementary school students lived within about a half-mile of a DCPS elementary school during the 2012-13 school year, these students traveled an average of about a mile to school every day. Only about 25 percent of D.C. students go to their in-boundary school.
A mile is a long walk for a young child, but it might be doable for older kids. Unfortunately, the average distance grows to about a mile and a half for DCPS middle school students, while high schoolers commute on average more than two miles. Charter school students travel even farther.
Most schools require the youngest kids to be accompanied to their classroom in the morning by a responsible adult, and the recent investigation of a Silver Spring couple for child neglect has everyone on guard about the once-normal practice of having older kids accompany younger ones. That means that parents who want their kids to walk to school have to fit that walk into their own morning routine, before getting themselves to work on time. For many, it’s more than they can manage.
The constant shuffle of charter school sites makes transportation even more challenging. Last summer, Shining Stars announced a move from 13th Street and Florida Avenue NW to Petworth, then to Wisconsin Avenue when that deal fell apart, and then finally to a Metro-inaccessible location near the Maryland border.
And last month, just days before the lottery application was due, D.C. Bilingual Public Charter School announced it was moving from Columbia Heights to Fort Totten. Many charter schools that incubated in dense and transit-rich corners of Northwest D.C. have found permanent homes in less-populated areas, often in Northeast, leaving parents to figure out new, complicated commute patterns.
The Center for Inspired Teaching still lists its address as 1436 U St. NW on the front page of its website, though it moved in the fall to 200 Douglas St. NE. That’s also when Mundo Verde moved from the heart of Columbia Heights to North Capitol and P streets and LAMB opened its new location four miles from its Missouri Avenue NW campus, which remains open.
Willman biked her older son to the Missouri Avenue campus all winter last year, even through polar vortices, as long as the sidewalks weren’t too icy. But not now that he’s on the other campus. “It got complicated when they moved him across the city and there was no safe way to bike there,” she says. “We would bike him to school over there if there was a safe route.”
Willman and her husband bought their house in Petworth to be close to LAMB, thinking that since the school owned the building on Missouri Avenue, it would never move.
It’s not just out of environmental do-gooderism that she’d rather bike than drive. “It’s just much more pleasant,” Willman says. “There’s something about when we’d get in the car, and they’d get in the backseat, they would start fighting. They’d argue about what music we were going to play on the radio. There was a different dynamic in this enclosed space than if they were out there with their hair blowing in the wind.”
Attending a school far from home brings other consequences. Parents note that it’s harder to arrange playdates with school friends who live scattered across the city. That can mean that extracurricular activities also require traveling distances too long to walk or bike.
The competition for school sites can be so intense that charters sometimes move into locations that aren’t ready for an influx of young kids walking there every day. “When DC Prep moved in [to its Edgewood campus], there weren’t any sidewalks,” DDOT’s Hefferan says. “We program our sidewalk funding multiple years in advance. They moved in and said, ‘OK, where are our sidewalks?’ We got them their sidewalks in record time, but that still left a few school years when they weren’t there.”
The District’s lack of school busing exacerbates the problem. DCPS only provides buses for students with special needs. A very small handful of charter schools provide some limited shuttles, but the nature of those schools’ citywide enrollment makes a comprehensive transportation system impossible. Subsidized WMATA passes for students take up some of the slack, but before sixth or seventh grade, few parents are willing to let their kids ride transit alone. All D.C. schoolkids—public, charter, and private—are eligible for free bus trips and sharply reduced Metrorail fares. But on any given day only about 15,000 take advantage of it, out of more than 86,000 eligible students.
The solution is not to shut down school choice. The blossoming of the charter school system, along with the improvement of many DCPS schools, has encouraged more people with options to stay in the District even after they have kids. A narrowing of choices could mean more of these families flee to the suburbs, and that just means more driving and less walking for everyone. Besides, at this time of year, Maryland and Virginia families with young kids start thinking about moving back to the District for the free full-day pre-K, which isn’t available in those states.
The city’s pre-K lottery, which announced its round one results on March 27, creates its own set of headaches for parents hoping for a humane commute. Even parents who want to send their three- and four-year-old kids to their in-boundary DCPS school have to play the lottery. And public schools with popular early childhood programs—like Maury Elementary in Capitol Hill, Stoddert in Glover Park, or Janney in Tenleytown—routinely end up unable to satisfy all the demand for seats, even within their boundaries.
One little-known gem buried in former Mayor Vince Gray’s school boundary plan is a provision ensuring matter-of-right admission to in-boundary schools for pre-K in areas of higher poverty; 85 of the city’s 111 public schools meet the criteria. But while the physical boundary changes will take effect citywide in the fall (with Mayor Muriel Bowser’s “tweaks”) the pre-K provision will only be tested in five schools.
Once they hit kindergarten, kids do have a right to attend their in-boundary schools. But if they’re happy and thriving where they are, parents are often reluctant to pull them out.
Guaranteeing pre-K admissions beyond the pilot to all eligible schools in the city would be, above all, a signature social-justice achievement. After all, in most parts of the country, universal, full-day preschool is just a pipe dream, but it could become a reality for the D.C.’s neighborhoods most in need. As a bonus, enacting that part of Gray’s proposal would also affirm a commitment to enrolling neighborhood kids in neighborhood schools and facilitate shorter, healthier commutes.
When enrolling in a neighborhood school isn’t possible—and even when it is—parents can organize “bike trains” and “walking school buses” where distances are reasonable, allowing kids to walk or bike to school with supervision while freeing parents from having to do the commute with their kids every day.
Charters could help create walkable commutes—and even facilitate the creation of school shuttles—by giving nearby students preference. That’s likely to be an unpopular proposal, though: The unlinking of geography and academic destiny is one of the selling points of charters’ citywide admissions. Education is complicated, and transportation isn’t most families’ primary concern when evaluating the system. But where unintended consequences have sprung up, like diminishing physical activity for kids and logistical hassles for parents, perhaps it’s time to recruit the schools themselves to become part of the solution.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery/file