More than 17,000 Baltimore students miss 20 or more days of school a year. Many of these chronically absent students and their parents say transportation is a major reason for their absences. That’s because nearly 30,000 city students use public transportation to get to school—students like 13-year-old Juwan Nobel and his 9-year-old brother Javon Nobel.
At about 7:30 a.m. each school day, the Nobel brothers walk three blocks down busy North Patterson Avenue to wait for the first of two public buses they take to school. The first bus stop is about three blocks from their apartment. They have electronic bus passes, provided by the school district, in hand as they wait for the bus.
“It takes a minute waiting for a bus,” Juwan said.
But sometimes, the wait can be much longer. “Sometimes they just pass you and it’s not a lot of people on the bus. I be mad,” says Javon. The Nobel brothers are late for school a lot, and their mother, Tyra Brown, said that they have also missed full days because they or their buses were late or they missed a transfer connection. On this particular day, the bus is on time, but it’s crowded with standing room only.
The ride down North Patterson to Old Town Mall is not that long, but it is a balancing act as the bus rumbles over potholes and bumps in the road. When the brothers exit the bus, they have to cross the street during rush hour to get to the next bus stop. They don’t go to a cross walk, but run in a break in traffic, which they say is always heavy. Juwan said he’s glad it’s sunny because many mornings and afternoons, the brothers’ bus waits have been long in the rain and snow. “It ain’t fun, but hey,” Juwan said with a shrug of his shoulders. Javon was more expressive about having to wait during bad weather. “I feel like just sad and I gotta walk in all this cold and I gotta catch that, catch this,” he said.
It’s during bad weather that some students ditch school. That’s according to Johns Hopkins researcher Robert Balfanz, who co-authored the first national study on chronic absenteeism last year. “It’s tiring when the weather is not good,” Balfanz said. “You’re in the cold and may not have the appropriate clothing for that. You may not have the good raincoat or umbrella. It gives them the opportunity to miss school.”
Senior Lonnie Hill takes three buses to get to Forest Park High School. He says bad weather and late buses are behind his numerous absences. "Third quarter, I missed 15 days,” Hill said. “I have to wait 45 minutes to an hour for a bus and longer on days when it rains.”
James Scroggins, the district’s chief operating officer, says they meet regularly with MTA officials and request route changes when they know of late buses or crowded bus stops. "At Friendship Academy students in Canton, there was an issue of not enough buses and students were waiting a long time, and the MTA took those concerns and they made adjustments and we haven’t heard any complaints since then,” Scroggins said.
Researcher Balfanz says it’s not just scheduling issues. Many chronically absent students use transfer points as an opportunity to skip school. “A parent can see the kids get on the first bus near their house but at that transfer point, the student now has the opportunity to go left and not right. The parent thinks they went to school. The school--because it’s not one bus pulling in front of the school where all the kids get off that they can watch, but kids are coming from all over--doesn’t know if the kid is coming or not and doesn’t respond right or way,” he said.
Scroggins says next year, they may be able to track students’ attendance through their electronic bus and train S-Passes. “It’s difficult at this point, but we are working with our IT division to try to capture that information in a way that allows us to report regularly to the schools to give them information that kind of helps them with respect to students in their schools. But all of that hasn’t been captured yet,” Scroggins said. Scroggins says only 8,000 students get to school on traditional yellow school buses, mainly elementary students who live more than a mile from their schools.
Parent Dana Gilliam says her 11-year-old daughter was given yellow bus service, but she still missed school a lot. Gilliam says it was because she had to walk 10 blocks, through a high-crime area, to get to her assigned yellow bus pick up point. “It’s a lot of things going on in the neighborhood,” Gilliam said. “It was always a group of people on the corner and just her being a female by herself would make her uncomfortable, would make me uncomfortable with her having to come through that to get to school.”
With the help of a social services agency, Gilliam’s daughter now gets to school by cab. Scroggins says about 800 district students get cab service. “Most are homeless, who live in various areas of the city where MTA isn’t close by and it would take three or four buses to get to school or they are in various counties. We are required to pick them up and bring them to their home schools,” Scroggins said.
But it’s not just homeless students who attend schools far from where they live. Researcher Balfanz says the choice Baltimore’s middle and high school students have in selecting a school places many outside their neighborhoods and contributes to chronic absenteeism. “Choice has benefits, but you have to look at the transportation implications of that and build a system that works so kids can exercise that choice and get to their schools without making heroic efforts,” Balfanz said.
Back on the bus with the Noble brothers, as they ride along, they know they’re going to be late again. Juwan gets off the bus at his school, William C. March Middle School, leaving his young brother to take the rest of the 10-minute ride solo to his school, Montebello Elementary Junior Academy. “He knows where to get off,” Juwan said. “See y’all later.”
Looking much younger than his age, Javon sits quietly for the rest of the ride, as people of all ages talked around him. Finally, he gets off the bus in front of his school. There’s a cross guard at the corner, but he sprints across the street at a closer point because he said he’s late. Juwan will take a bus to his school at the end of each day so they can ride home together. “He picks me up right here. See ya,” he said over his shoulder as he ran the rest of the way to his school.
The Nobel brothers will repeat the routine all over tomorrow and every school day.
Empty Desks is made possible through a grant from Open Society Institute-Baltimore: investing in solutions to Baltimore’s toughest problems.