By: Scott Oosterom & Mark Walters (2010)
With millions of students travelling on school busses each day, one of the primary concerns of educational administrators, along with governments is that of transportation – getting students safely to and from school. Students in many communities, not only in Newfoundland, but also throughout North America, have been enduring long bus rides that have resulted from the consolidation of rural schools. Parents and teachers alike have expressed concerns regarding the length of bus rides and the effects they have on the students. In many smaller, more remote regions the school was the center of the community and culture, a place to convene and socialize with other community members. In this research we will look at the effects that bussing has had on the students’ lives and their school communities. We will also examine the debate that existed in Newfoundland and Labrador between parents and the Department of Education as they attempted to create criteria that would later be used to determine which schools should be closed and which qualified to remain open.
A Personal Perspective
When I selected the topic of “bussing” I was not certain how it would become a major topic of research. However, as I began reading, it occurred to me – I was a rural student who had long bus rides each day and I could connect personally with what I was reading. When I was in elementary school in British Columbia I had a ten minute walk to the bus stop, followed by a twenty minute ride to school. The school had a population of, maybe two hundred students, from kindergarten to grade six. This was not the smallest school in the area, but the bus rides for many students was long, as the distances were great between the extremely rural farming communities and the school. Soon after I changed schools and moved to Nova Scotia, the district closed this elementary school, meaning the already long bus rides became even longer as students now had to be bussed into the town, an additional thirty minutes away.
Through high school I had 45-60 minute bus rides to and from school each morning. This meant I had to be on the bus by 7:20 AM to make it to school for the 8:45 AM start of homeroom and class. During the winter months this trip occasionally took over an hour, and meant that school would sometimes end up being cancelled before our bus route finished; parents at the bus stops would have to inform the driver. We were double-routed in the mornings, meaning the elementary students were picked up at the same time as high school students, and later dropped off at the elementary school before continuing to the high school. The afternoon route, though not double-routed, was typically twenty minutes late arriving at school because the same driver had to do a run for a nearby elementary school. This wait, followed by the already long bus ride meant that those of us at the end of the route were arriving home just in time for supper; this often left little time in the evening for chores, after-school jobs, or homework.
Sixty minutes on the bus meant there was a lot of downtime for students – some tried to sleep, read, or even do homework. Though the bus driver was strict, he could not always maintain constant supervision on the bus. Unfortunately, this meant that bullying was an ongoing concern for many students. Reporting these actions to the driver or school administration often resulted in further bullying.
Since the school was thirty minutes from my home community, I often had to forego extracurricular activities in favour of a ride home. Likewise, my parents, who both worked, were rarely involved in school activities because it was too far to travel after the workday. There were times that the distance to school meant that students would have to remain at school even if they took ill or found themselves being suspended.
In Newfoundland and Labrador thousands of students travel to school on the school bus, and like most parts of Canada, this is not unusual. Generally speaking, buses have allowed schools to become larger and modernize the education that students receive. They have also allowed districts to offer a more standardized education so that more students in an educational jurisdiction can have access to the instruction of a common curriculum in a more efficient manner (Ramage and Howley, 2005). Without school busses, unless there was a school located within the community, students in rural communities would have to walk. Throughout the 1800’s this resulted in large numbers of small schools that were within walking distance of all children in a particular region (Howley, Howley and Shamblen, 2001). Though enrolment was low in the beginning, and funding support from governments was minimal, the schools gave children a place where they could learn to read, write and acquire practical skills (Howley and Howley, 2001).
Consolidation in an educational context is the process of reorganizing one or more schools or districts into a single, larger unit; often with the purpose of saving money. While, smaller, closer schools meant that more students would have access to an education, throughout the 1900’s there has been a significant decline in student enrolment, making it uneconomical to keep many of these small schools open. This, along with the construction of more modern schools, has resulted in educational administrators across North America deciding to consolidate (Killeen and Sipple, 2000).
These consolidations have led to relocating the students to larger more centralized schools. Since we expect all children to be in school, this means that most rural children must do their formal learning in neighbouring communities, often great distances from their homes (Howley, Howley and Shamblen, 2001; Jimerson, 2007). The result is long bus rides each day, often over an hour in each direction, to and from school.
Consolidation and bussing in Rural Newfoundland and Labrador
Newfoundland is unique in that most of the province is considered to be rural. Small communities that were once built around a thriving fishing industry are now suffering from rapid declines in population, as young families relocate to more urban centres to obtain jobs. Many of these communities had multiple schools, reminiscent of the once denominational school system within the province. During the 1990’s the Department of Education began to look at the economic feasibility of keeping so many schools open. The government decided that restructuring of the (then) current education system was needed; this meant closure and consolidation of small community schools throughout the province in order to cut unnecessary costs (Mulcahy, 1999).
While parents expressed concerns regarding the importance of small community schools have to the community, and the quality of academics, they were equally concerned about bussing. Their children would have to attend school in another community, thus resulting in an increase in time on the bus, and the distance to school. Though the government proposed that the greater bus times were in the name of improved educational opportunities, many parents were not convinced (Mulcahy, 1999). Parents believed that too many students were already being bussed too far, and were concerned for their children’s safety during travel and the negative effects that bussing has on children and their families (Mulcahy, 1999).
Since many rural communities in Newfoundland and Labrador are isolated from each other and great distances apart, consolidation of schools becomes more difficult. For example, many students who attend Fitzgerald Academy at English Harbour West are from the smaller surrounding communities like Pool’s Cove, Belleoram, or Wreck Cove. These children would have long bus rides upwards of forty-five minutes in ideal road conditions, possibly longer in the winter. If consolidation were to take place in this part of Newfoundland, and this school closed, students would find themselves on the bus nearly twice as long in order to be bussed to the next closest school in Harbour Breton. Though this is an extreme and unlikely situation for this particular school, this was the case for many communities in Newfoundland following the provincial government’s school restructuring initiative. In addition to being in school for six hours, students could be spending up to two hours each day on the bus, and though the recommendation is not more than forty-five minutes, it is often difficult to adhere to this policy due to the geographical area. While the government is saving money by closing schools, what is the cost to teachers, parents, and more importantly, the children?
Effects of Long-Distance Bussing
As the numbers of students in rural North America continue to decline, and school districts continue to close smaller schools in favour of larger more centralized schools, there will be a steady rise in the number of students taking increasingly longer bus rides each day. The governments claim that the longer bus rides are a fair exchange for a better quality education since larger schools provide greater opportunities for success (Howley, Howley and Shamblen, 2001; Mulcahy 1999; Ramage and Howley, 2005). Although this claim is used to entice parents when it comes to closing their community schools, it, rather, sugar coats the reality of the long bus ride experience.
There are many negative effects that result from the students being on the bus for longer periods of time. According to Jimerson (2007) and Howley and Howley (2001), there is a significant relationship between the time it takes students to travel to school and the level of participation in extracurricular activities. Students with the longer commute of sixty minutes or more tend to participate less in extracurricular activities because of the distance between home and school. Many rural families do not have access to two vehicles, making it difficult to for parents to pick up their children from school. Inability to participate in these activities prevents rural children from being able to fully enjoy the school experience, which in itself and can improve the overall quality of education (Spence, 2000). As the distance to school increases, students are unable to participate in more activities, both in the home and out. This can have a detrimental effect on their lifestyles, as they give up recreational or even social activities (Howley, Howley and Shamblen, 2001; Mulcahy, 1999; Spence, 2000; Zars, 1998).
In many rural communities across North America students are on the bus for over two hours at a time. This is down time for children because there are few activities in which they can engage. The time that children spend on the bus is not considered to be of great value when administrators decide to close schools. This time spend on the bus should be spent sleeping, being with family and friends, doing homework, or other recreational activities. Students with long bus rides have little time to spend with family after arriving home from school. After spending upwards of six hours on a bus in addition to the time in school, children are physically exhausted and unable to function in a meaningful way. Homework may suffer, time to relax and sleep are diminished because they have an early commute each morning (Lu and Tweeten, 1973; Ramage and Howley, 2005; Spence, 2000). The major complaint among all students with long bus rides is the loss of choice in activities and the overall loss of sleep-time (Zars, 1998).
The children’s sleep deprivation can lead to a depressed immune system, and being confined on the bus with thirty other students creates a breeding ground for illness. Parents of children with shorter bus rides may consider sending their children to school even if they are not feeling well in the morning, and be able to pick them up from school if their condition worsens. Those students with long bus rides do not have this option, and so parents are more likely to keep their children home, much to the dismay of the teachers and administrators at school (Mulcahy, 1999; Zars, 1998). Physical activity is a necessity for energetic, young children. The down time on the school bus is normally a time when children could be playing, getting exercise and burning off some of their energy. Instead, their energy may be released in the classroom in the form of disruptions and hyperactivity. Zars (1998) suggests that the hours spent on the bus which drastically reduce students’ physical activity, may be linked to the increase in childhood obesity.
Given the distances from some communities to school, students are often double-routed. This means that as a result of governments and educational administrators saving money, students from high school are travelling on the same bus as younger elementary students. Since the bus driver is unable to maintain constant supervision at all times, and there are no teachers present, bullying becomes an issue. Longer bus rides means there is more time for younger children to be harassed by older children. Parents are often concerned about the negative impact that older children have on younger children by exposing them to ideas and language that is inappropriate for the age group (Mulcahy, 1999; Zars, 1998).
A well known study by Lu and Tweeten (1973) suggested that there is a negative correlation between the length of bus rides and student achievement. That is, as the length of time on the bus increased, mean student achievement decreased. Many parents with concerns about the closure of their community school believe this to be true as well, and often insist at guideline be made to limit time students spend on the bus (Mulcahy, 1999). However, it is worth noting that a similar study to that of Lu and Tweeten was conducted three years earlier. Spence (2000) says that this study showed no statistical difference between the academic achievements of students with longer bus rides versus those with shorter rides. Students with longer bus rides lose more time for sleep. Sleep deprivation not only affects students’ health, but also their grades. Students who are over-tired are unable to function well in a classroom. As a result, their grades may decrease, interest in school and attendance decreases, and the eventual outcome may be dropping out. With no late-running buses, students are often not able to take advantage of after-school tutoring in courses where they are struggling. With declining grades, and no time for extracurricular activities, minimal time for homework, and reduced parental involvement with the school, these students may become disconnected and uninterested in their education (Spence, 2000; Zars, 1998).
One of the major concerns that parents in rural communities have when it comes to bussing is the quality of the roads. If their children must travel long distances to school, it is of the utmost importance that the bus routes be properly maintained to ensure their safety. This is especially true in very remote regions where roads are little more than dirt roads that twist and turn over mountains. Throughout the United States consolidation efforts came to an abrupt halt when administrators ventured into isolated communities and deemed the roadways unsafe to permit bus travel (Zars, 1998). Similar circumstances have come up in Newfoundland. Due to the remoteness of many communities, some very small community schools remain open. In this province, one of the issues with road safety arises during the winter months – snow. Parents insisted that the Department of Education work closely with the Department of Works to ensure that bus routes get priority when clearing snow (Mulcahy, 1999).
Governments and policy-marks often fail to take into account these that the longer bus ride would have on students and their families. Generally speaking, these physical costs associated with rural bussing are secondary to the financial cost. The bottom line is that regardless of the distance that students will have to travel on the bus, it is still cheaper than maintaining and staffing the higher number of school facilities.
Financial Cost of Bussing
While the majority of research into rural bussing studies the effects of the long bus rides on the students, there are still the financial costs that the extra bussing incurs. According to Killeen and Sipple (2000) research into the costs of transporting students indicated that there has been a dramatic rise in the total expenditures for transportation services. The costs associated with transportation of rural students are significantly greater than that of transporting non-rural students. Also, there is a direct relationship with the number of students being bussed due to consolidation and the increase in bussing expenditures. Despite the fact that consolidation was done to reduce the expense of education, school districts do not seem to benefit from them. This is especially true as the cost of transport on a per-student basis has increased considerably in the last sixty years (Killeen and Sipple, 2000).
During the 1990’s the Newfoundland and Labrador governments restructuring program was intended to save money by closing schools and making the bussing system more efficient. Along with the suggested closure of small school, the government suggest that parents in rural communities pay user fees to help compensate with the increased transportation costs associated with travelling greater distances (Mulcahy, 1999). Parents disagree, insisting that if the government is closing schools, then the government should pay for the entire cost of transportation. With rising fuel costs, one can infer that the average cost of transporting students in rural Newfoundland has increased substantially, especially during the last five ten years. With the continuously declining student enrolment, this cost per student will certainly increase, as costs go up, but the total number of students travelling on the bus decreases. Just as in the United States, transportation expenditures consistently exceed the growth rates for over all enrolment and the number of students being bussed (Killeen and Sipple, 2000).
The research indicates that as educational administrators continue close and consolidate schools, students need for bussing will continue to increase. In rural communities across North America these bus routes will often be long, some over two hours in each direction. These long rides cut into students’ time, and often have a deleterious effect on their education, lifestyle and health. From poor grades to being unable to participate in extracurricular activities or spend time with friends and family, students are affected in many negative ways. Many of the studies have incorporated stories from students and their families explaining how these factors affect their lives. Time is the biggest constraint for students with long bus rides; they often have to wake up early for the commute, and get home late. There is often not enough time to do things that will help them to fully enjoy the school experience.
Parents in many rural communities have determined that the school districts are more concerned about saving money in their budgets than they are with the quality of children’s lives and the value of their time. When schools are being considered for consolidation, there are many factors that should be taken into account, the length of time spend on the bus and the effects the bus ride will have on children. If the decision to close schools is made, parents feel that the Department of Education do their part to ensure the safety of their children during the long bus rides, by increasing priority of road maintenance and snow removal on the bus routes.
When it comes time to close schools, administrators need to take into account the actual expenditures associated with bussing. There has been a progressive increase in the transportation cost per student riding the bus; this is considerably more noticeable in rural areas where fewer students are on the bus. Rising fuel costs and declining enrolment mean the cost per student is steadily increasing.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, rural communities are often isolated or great distances apart, and as such, consolidation is at times difficult. I feel that the government needs to take into account the many negative effects and physical costs that long distance bussing has on students, and decide whether it is feasible to close as community school. Rather than insisting that a larger school provides a better education, they need to consider all the factors – statistical data and personal experiences – and make decisions on a community basis so that all possible options can be reviewed in the interest of providing the best education for the children.
Howley, A. & Howley, C. (2001). Rural School Busing. Eric Digest. Retrieved on February 1, 2010 from http://www.ericdigests.org/2002-3/busing.htm.
Howley, C., Howley, A., & Shamblen, S. (2001). Riding the school bus: A study of the rural versus suburban experience in five states. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 17(1), 41-61.
Jimerson, L. (2007). Slow Motion: Travelling by School Bus in Consolidated Districts in West Virginia. Rural School and Community Trust. March 2007. Retrieved on January 31, 2010 from http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/contentdelivery/servlet/ERICServlet? accno=ED499440.
Killeen, K and Sipple, J. (2000). School Consolidation and Transportation Policy: An Empirical and Institutional Analysis. Randolph, VT: Rural School and Community Trust. Retrieved January 31, 2010, from http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICDocs/data/ericdocs2sql/ content_storage_01/ 0000019b/80/16/b3/81.pdf.
Lu, Yao-Chi and Tweeten, L. (1973). The impact of busing on student achievement. Growth and Change. 4(4), pp. 44-46.
Mulcahy, D. (1999). Critical Perspectives on Rural Education Reform. The Morning Watch. 26(3/5). Retrieved on January 31, 2010 from http://www.mun.ca/educ /faculty/mwatch/win99/mulcahy.htm.
Ramage, R. and Howley, A. (2005). Parents’ Perceptions of the Rural School Bus Ride. The Rural Educator. Fall 2005. Retrieved on January 31, 2010 from http://findarticles.com /p/articles/ mi_qa4126/is_200510/ai_n15744340.
Spence, B. (2000). Long School Bus Rides: Their Effect on School Budgets, Family Life, and Student Achievement. Rural Education Issue digest. WV: AEL, Inc. http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/contentdelivery/servlet/ERICServlet?accno=ED448955.
Zars, B. (1998). Long Rides, Tough Hides: Enduring Long Bus Rides. A rural education policy paper produced by The Rural Community Trust, Washington, DC. Retrieved on January 31, 2010 from http://eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/custom/portlets/recordDetails/detailmini.jsp?_nfpb=true&_&ERICExtSearch_SearchValue_0=ED432419&ERICExtSearch_SearchType_0=no&accno=ED432419