Study Shows Poor Students Commute Longer Distances to School

A new study by a Johns Hopkins School of Education researcher is challenging the conventional notion that disadvantaged neighborhoods trap children in failing schools.

Julia Burdick-Will, an assistant professor in the School of Education and the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, said its actually children in affluent neighborhoods who stay close to home.

“We think of children in poor neighborhoods as ‘stuck.’ But they’re not stuck in one geographic place,” she said. “They’re stuck navigating a complicated and far-flung school system.”

She studied the administrative records of more than 24,000 eighth graders in Chicago public schools. The research showed that the more affluent students stayed closer to home while students in lower-income neighborhoods would travel for miles in search of better options.

In Chicago neighborhoods with a median household income of more than $75,000, most students attended one of two or three schools. But when the neighborhood median income dropped to less than $25,000, students dispersed to an average of 13 different schools.

“We clearly show that the belief that where one lives determines where one goes to school isn’t the reality in Chicago or in an increasing number of U.S. cities,” said Burdick-Will. “You have kids scattering everywhere.”

A little over half of the students in the study attended a neighborhood school, and one-third weren’t attending their neighborhood school. No one in higher-income neighborhoods attended open enrollment schools or charter schools, but more than 20 percent of students in disadvantaged areas attended open enrollment schools and another 7 percent chose charter schools. Low-income students endured the longest commutes to school.

Burdick-Will found that a student in a disadvantaged neighborhood was also 35 percent more likely to be the only person from their neighborhood at school. In low-income neighborhoods, the problem isn’t just access, Burdick-Will said, but the potential social costs of traveling far across the city every day, possibly alone—costs that don’t apply to similarly achieving students in higher-income neighborhoods.

“We think of choice as a thing of privilege,” she said. “But what we see is that there is a privilege of not having to choose.”

Burdick-Will presented her findings at the recent American Sociological Association annual meeting. The conclusions have implications for inequality and social mobility, particularly as nontraditional school-choice options, like charter schools, and open enrollment continue to increase nationwide.

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