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'If You Miss the Bus, You're Walking Four Hours': Challenges of Rural Absenteeism

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Toronto

What happens if a 9th grader misses the bus? If she's waiting at the stop near the 4505 mile marker along California Highway 154, she's got a more than 12-mile walk to Santa Ynez Valley Union High School.

That's the kind of situation that led University of California Santa Barbara researchers to explore district transportation policies to find out they can affect chronic absenteeism among rural students.

"It you live in this rural area, you are really dependent on that bus. If miss the bus, you're walking four hours and 19 minutes to get to school," said Christopher Ozuna, a U.C. Santa Barbara researcher who discussed the study this week as part of the American Educational Research Association's annual meeting here. "You may not have a car, you may have fewer neighbors who can give you a ride."

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U.C. Santa Barbara researchers analyzed attendance data from a nationally representative sample of more than 3,400 rural students. They found rural students who rode the school bus had significantly higher attendance and lower risk of becoming chronically absent, even though those riding the bus had a longer mean commute, in both time and distance, from rural students in the study who didn't ride the bus.  

"The bus currently isn't being used as an intervention for chronic absenteeism, and maybe it should be. We could optimize these city bus routes to be as effective as possible," he said. "It seems like an easy place to cut and save money, but perhaps if you could design these routes in ways to get kids to school and reduce student absenteeism, maybe [the transportation costs] would even out."

There are more than 7,000 rural districts in the United States, accounting for more than half of all districts and 18 percent of all students. Federal civil rights data show these districts have lower absenteeism than urban districts, but higher rates than those in suburban and municipal districts. 

Robert Mahaffey, the executive director of the Rural School and Community Trust, said rural transportation, particularly in mountainous or remote areas, is a constant challenge. "It's not just bus transportation, it's the reality of trying to get the child to the bus stop," he said, noting that parents in some areas must drive children before dawn to reach a pickup stop in time. These raise different kinds of attendance challenges than those in urban districts, which often have more public transportation.

"There are often interventions made in urban districts of Chicago or New York that are said to be generalizable to be models for rural districts—and there are certainly some lessons to be learned there, but they don't necessarily translate," Mahaffey told Education Week.

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