Students at my school who travel long distances come to school less often, I concluded earlier this month. But what does their commute mean for their academic achievement?
In the second phase of my study, I examined how the length of a student’s commute relates to his academic progress. Again, I looked only at the self-contained special education students at my school, Columbus High School in the Bronx, and I used credit accumulation as the tool to measure progress. My results show that the negative impact of a long commute on attendance is magnified when looking at credit accumulation.
Here’s the bottom line:
Having looked at these numbers and through the raw student data, I noticed that for the students traveling farther to school there was a subset of students outperforming others — the students taking work-study programs or internships. Among the 180 self-contained I students studied, 28 participate in one of three vocational programs. These students often seemed to be able to beat the relationship between the commute, attendance and credit accumulation.
Of these 28 students, three take the yellow bus, three live close to school, eight are in the 15-29 minute range, and the remaining 14 live 30 minutes or more from school.
Here are the same results depicted another way:
One of my most troubling findings is that even accounting for the commute and participation in special programs, the farther students live from the school the more slowly they accumulate credit.
As I began to notice this phenomenon I frequently went a step further in ARIS, the city’s school data system, and checked out the students’ test scores. Anecdotally (I have not formally measured this yet), the students with the longest commutes appear to be at increased risk of having scored at level 1, or far below grade level, in all subjects in which they were tested in the lower grades and of having made little or no academic progress in the middle grades. I plan to test this hypothesis more thoroughly.
The reality is that most students coming longer distances to Columbus are coming from further south in the Bronx, where poverty increases. I can’t help wondering whether students from this area experience greater challenges in general, or whether those who are most challenged in those neighborhoods are not being sent to local schools for some reason. There are no longer any zoned high schools in the South Bronx. Of the schools there, many do not provide small, self-contained special education classes. Those schools that do provide such classes are serving considerable percentages of students — particularly those schools that are larger in size and are have both 15:1 and 12:1:1 classes to the students whose special education plans indicate that these class sizes will best meet their needs.
I cannot help but think about what my findings might say about Columbus’s progress report. Last year high schools received an extra credit point on their progress reports if at least 45.7 percent of all special education students earned more than 11 credits in the year. They got two extra points if 56.3 percent of students or more earned that many credits. I couldn’t help but observe that (had the fall’s credit accumulation trend carried through to the spring) if Columbus had been judged on our yellow bus, local and vocational students, we would receive two extra points for outstanding credit accumulation for this group of students — but with the more distant students included, Columbus received no bonus points in closing the achievement gap for special education students. But if commute distance for this group is as significant as it appears to be, is this the school’s fault?
Once again, I recognize that this is a small study of just one set of students at one school. A project of much larger scope would be needed to reveal whether these relationships exist across a broad spectrum of New York City schools. This study does, however, suggest several possibilities for raising attendance and improving outcomes for self-contained students — neighborhood schools, the school bus, and vocational programs.