The school bus didn’t go down my street when I was a kid. The road – the lane, really – wasn’t paved and ended in a field, leaving no way for a bus to turn around. So we walked. In all weather, without a parent, beginning at the age of five. It wasn’t a long walk – two turns, one parking lot, one busy street with a crossing guard. We were lucky to live so close to school.
Many kids aren’t so lucky. For them, even getting to class is a challenge.
As Seattle spirals and pushes marginalized folks farther and farther out, the distance that poor people have to travel grows. Already bad traffic gets worse; already crowded buses get even more full. Students, of course, feel this, too.
Among the documented 4,280 students in Seattle Public Schools who struggle with homelessness, hundreds are sleeping on couches or doubled-up with family members. They will move multiple times throughout the year – and every time they do, their education is threatened.
Instability in the home directly leads to instability in the classroom. Numerous studies have found that switching schools, missing class and chronic tardiness can cause students to fall behind by months or even years. Eventually, it can lead students to drop out altogether.
Lawmakers have tried to help. One of the provisions of the federal program known as the McKinney-Vento Education of Homeless Children and Youth Assistance Act is that school districts must help students get to and stay in their “school of origin.” This means if a student moves part way through the year, the district has to help them get back to their old school.
In western Washington, that sometimes means providing a bus pass or paying to re-insure a parent’s car. It also might mean solo cab rides, sometimes as long as an hour at a time. Anecdotally, these cab rides can make students late for class or even result in delivery to the wrong school.
The rides are also expensive, much to the chagrin of local conservative talk radio hosts – but the problem isn’t the cab ride. The problem is that families with students can’t afford to live near their schools. The problem is that students are having to move abruptly and often, and that the only constant in their life is school.
As students return to school for the year, many will be sitting in class, wondering how much longer they’ll be there. They may return home to boxes and plastic bags, waiting for another move. They may get picked up in the car where they also sleep at night.
And then, in the morning, the cycle begins again.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer, policy consultant and currently, the interim editor at Real Change. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, GOOD, Salon, Fast Company and Pacific Standard. View previous Access Denied columns.
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