Report: Transportation Affects Chronic Absenteeism

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A new report from Upstream Public Health in Portland, Oregon, looks at the link between student health and chronic absenteeism in Oregon and the impact of various factors, including transportation, on student attendance.

According to the report, a lack of reliable transportation is a primary factor in chronic absenteeism for students, as communities have become more dependent on the family vehicle to transport children to school. This can be a particular barrier for low-income students, with long-term repercussions for academic achievement and career success.

The report notes that the highest student absentee rates are seen in Montana (28 percent), New Mexico (26 percent), Oklahoma (24 percent) and Oregon (24 percent), based on the combined percentage of fourth and eighth graders who reported missing three or more days of school in a month. Upstream uses the National Center for Children in Poverty’s definition of chronic absenteeism as a particular student missing 10 percent or more of school days — or about a month — within a 180-day academic year.

Researchers noted that reasons for chronic absenteeism fall into three categories:

  • Barrier: “Cannot” go reasons include a lack of access to transportation, chronic health problems (i.e., asthma) and lack of health care access;
  • Aversion: “Will not” go reasons include children avoiding school from a lack of interest in the curriculum, fear of being bullied, experiencing unpleasant treatment based on their race, culture, physical appearance, or disabilities;
  • Myths: “Do not” go reasons such as impressions of family, school, and community culture that only missing school repeatedly and unexcused absences — or truancy — should be prioritized over requiring, supporting, and promoting regular attendance.

Key factors that are mostly outside the education system include healthcare access, transportation options, housing and cultural barriers, states the report. With regard to transportation, the report notes that people began to live further from schools in the past 50 years as urban areas expanded, and district policies now give parents flexibility in enrolling children in schools beyond their own neighborhoods. As a result, communities have become increasingly dependent on public transportation and the family vehicle to transport children to school: In 1969, 40.7 percent of children in the United States walked or bicycled to school, and by 2001, only 12.9 percent of children used one of these travel modes to get to school.

In 2012, 8.3 percent of all Oregon households did not have access to a vehicle and 12 percent of households with two workers only had access to one vehicle. Some communities, such as Portland, have government agencies that have shared costs to subsidize programs to ensure high school students can make it to school through a Youth Pass bus ticket program, yet this program is now in jeopardy due to lack of funding.

While research is limited on how frequently transportation is connected to student absences in Oregon, the issue appears in multiple attendance efforts as requiring intervention based on community experiences in California, New York, Utah, Indiana, and Maryland, according to the report.

The Safe Routes to School National Partnership said these findings highlight the importance of programs such as walking school buses in offering safe and reliable transportation options for students. The National Partnership and Attendance Works are holding a webinar on Dec. 15 to discuss how transportation can be a barrier to school attendance and highlight Safe Routes to School as a resource to help communities address chronic absenteeism.

Additionally, Upstream recommends new partnerships between land use and transportation planners working with schools and neighborhoods to identify and address areas with significant transportation barriers. The organization also suggests that social service agencies work with land use planners, community development corporations and businesses to identify students and families that are homeless or mobile and connect them to appropriate resources to stabilize their housing.