Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
Many kids spend hours commuting to school by public transportation. New research suggests a link between student exposure to high-crime areas and chronic absenteeism.
On Friday, Bryonna Harris was taking a city bus back from Frederick Douglass High School to her home in Northeast Baltimore. But on that afternoon, the trip took a little longer: Someone had been murdered on the street along her bus route, and the police had sealed off the entire block. The bus was diverted.
Harris, an 11th grader, has normalized this kind of thing.
“I’m kind of desensitized to it—I mean, I don’t like to think of myself like that, but I’m so used to it,” she said. “Every day I’m scrolling down my timeline, and that’s all I see: death, death, death. It just makes me feel like the city is never going to get better.”
That is the reality for her and many other kids in her school, where exposure to serious violence is a disturbingly familiar occurrence. For many, merely getting to class involves a harrowing journey through high-crime areas. And sometimes, the school itself offers no respite from violence. Earlier this month, a Frederick Douglass staffer was shot and seriously injured inside the school by an assailant who entered the school during the day, leading the Baltimore City school board to support a state bill allowing school police to carry weapons. “[C]hildren are so exhausted by their efforts to survive that they are basically hyperventilating through each school day,” a Douglass teacher, Daniel Parsons, wrote in an recent op-ed in The Baltimore Sun.
What kind of effects does living in and traveling through such an environment have on students? In a recent study, researchers at Johns Hopkins University made an effort to quantify this exposure, finding that Baltimore City Public Schools students who walked and took public transit through areas with double the average crime rate in the city tended to be 6 percent more likely to miss school. The study follows-up on a 2017 report on student commuting and public transportation undertaken by the Baltimore Education Research Consortium (BERC) that examined the relationship between arduous trips to school and absenteeism. The findings serve “to call attention to the time between home and school,” said Julia Burdick-Will, sociologist and lead author of the study. “I think a lot of our education policy ignores that.”
Baltimore makes for a particularly interesting city to study this relationship, because of its “universal choice” system that starts in eighth grade. The goal—at least in theory—is to help level the educational playing field by offering kids who live in less-resourced neighborhoods the option of applying to open-enrollment public, magnet, or charter schools in other parts of town. The high-achievement schools from this pool select kids based on standardized test scores, attendance, and grades, or on the basis of lotteries.
One of the consequences of the choice model is that many kids—especially those from low-income neighborhoods, of which Baltimore has many—must fan out across the city to get to their school. Close to 30,000 students—including 6 out of 10 high-schoolers—use public transit. And this is happening in a city that is struggling with a resurgent wave of violent crime. According to the 2017 BERC report, a third of students traveling by public transport in Baltimore do not feel safe.
To get a sense of their experience, JHU researchers mapped the most efficient routes to school (using public transport) for Baltimore City Public Schools ninth graders during 2014-2015 school year. They then evaluated the levels of crime along these commutes, and their effect on the students’ academic performance, adjusting for factors like demographics, prior attendance rates, and discrepancies in violent crime rates.
On average, student commuters needed 36 minutes to get to school and made two transfers—more than most adult commuters in the region. Eight percent of their sample walked all the way. The level of violence they were exposed to while walking or waiting for public transit had an effect on absenteeism rates, but crime on streets traversed by public transit did not appear to affect absences.
That doesn’t mean that buses and trains are themselves safer, but kids were only vulnerable to conditions they face outside of vehicles, while on the streets. And those conditions are making a significant dent on their likelihood to show up to school.
Here are two maps the researchers created. The first shows the rate of crime at bus stops around the city:
The second shows the incidence of crime (as a heat map) overlaid with the transit stops that students use the most (represented by the size of the circle) to get to their high schools (the black squares):
Such absences exact a severe penalty. The U.S. Department of Education has described chronic absenteeism in the nation as a “hidden educational crisis”—particularly stark among children of color. It makes these kids much more likely to drop out of school, changing the course of their adult lives in profound ways. This phenomenon is also a part a larger structural problem: There’s a lot happening outside of school that affects whether kids are able to come to school in the first place, research shows.
For Diamond Heck, a 19-year-old senior at Baltimore’s Renaissance Academy High School in West Baltimore, it’s not just the high-crime environment she traverses to get to class—it’s the sheer length of her commute. She needs an hour to get to school, via bus and light rail, from her home in far northeast Baltimore. When she’s done with classes for the day, she works at the Chipotle near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, which means another lengthy bus ride. By the time she finishes her shift, gets home, and gets into bed, it’s often almost 1 in the morning. The next day, she has to do it all again.
She likes her school—but the commute is brutal, especially given the less-than-stellar reliability of the city’s transit system. And she’s not the only one: the distance—especially from the last transit stop to the school—has previously been established as a barrier. That’s why, this term, Heck requested that her first class begins a little later. “I know, at the end of the day—I need this,” she said about school. “And I know what I need to do to get it.”
Kids like Harris and Heck are able to push themselves and show up despite the odds. For many others, the structural barriers that keep them from physically getting to class become insurmountable. In 2017, 37 percent of city school kids missed at least 10 percent of school, the highest rate in the state. In nine of the city’s worst-performing schools, more than 80 percent of the student body was chronically absent that year.
Some critics argue have argued that the choice system itself needs to be scrutinized, because it reproduces inequities and allows the city to relinquish responsibility for fixing them. In this case, it gives kids and teenagers an early taste of the grown-up consequences of living with an inadequate public transit system—consequences that track with them into adulthood. Chronic absenteeism in the 6th grade, a 2011 study of Baltimore students revealed, is the strongest predictor of future failure to graduate.
Staggering school start times and allowing kids to get to school later, says Burdick-Will, is indeed one way education practitioners and policymakers can help the home-to-school transition easier, so they’re better able to cope and seek help if they need it. She also recommends that schools provide support to help students process their experiences a little bit better at the beginning of the day.
School doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In a merit-based system, it’s the children who often get the blame for failing to get to class and not being able to keep up with school work. “But that doesn’t take into account what it took to get there,” said Burdick-Will.
Funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation was provided to support our project "The Kids’ Zone."