Advocates, parents, teachers and lawmakers have spent years working to solve the challenges facing our education system. In our research, it's become clear that improving the state's chronic absenteeism rate is one of the most important things we can do — and to ensure that students are in the classroom, we must make sure they can get there safely.
As members of the Oregon House of Representatives serving on the Education Committee, we recently heard from parents of students at W. L. Henry Elementary School about the challenges they face getting their kids to school. In heartbreaking testimonials, they shared their frustration over a lack of safe transportation options for their children to get to school. They can't take their children to school in the morning because they also struggle to access public transportation to get to work. They are worried about their children arriving to school safely. We were moved by their experiences and were left thinking: we can and must do better.
In May 2016, the Chief Education Office convened a report on chronic absenteeism in Oregon schools.The report found that a primary systemic barrier contributing to absenteeism in education is a lack of transportation. The report affirms that "although chronic absenteeism affects students of all ages, it is particularly a problem for students of color, students with disabilities, and students living in poverty."
Aside from the clear safety risks of requiring children as young as five years old to walk a mile or more by themselves to school, we have concerns about what this is doing to their education. When children arrive to school cold and wet, they are not ready to learn. When students cannot walk safely to school, they are not ready to learn. When students miss one or more days from school because outside temperatures are too low and it's too cold for them to endure the long, cold walk, they are held back from learning.
Two local schools provide a good case study: W. L. Henry and Eastwood. Both schools are located in the Hillsboro School District and serve similar student populations. There is one glaring difference we identified between these two schools: Eastwood has safe, reliable busing for its students and a 5 percent higher rate of attendance. W. L. Henry has 150 less students than Eastwood, and has more cases of chronic absenteeism.
A lack of adequate busing compounds other factors that negatively impact students' ability to succeed. Students who attend W. L. Henry experience poverty at a higher rate than most of their peers throughout the state, and they are more likely to be English Language Learners. Making it difficult for them to get to school throws yet another obstacle in their way.
As legislators, we are deeply concerned with the reported achievement gap between white students and students of color. In the case of schools like W. L. Henry, we believe the lack of busing further contributes to widening the achievement gap. Schools need to recognize that transportation to school plays a crucial part in a student's academic achievement. We can close this gap for our children, and we must.
Susan McLain is a former teacher and represents House District 29, which
includes parts of Hillsboro, Cornelius
and Forest Grove. Diego Hernandez
is a former teacher, Reynolds School Board member, and represents House District 47, which includes parts of East Portland.