India Sigure climbs into the back seat of her grandmother’s Chevrolet. It’s 8:15 on a cold December morning, and she won’t get out of the car until around 9:15 — 30 minutes after school starts. The 12-year-old and her grandmother, Vanessa Hill, aim to leave by 7:30 am to arrive by the opening bell, but they don’t always make it.
When they pull up to Rose L. Hardy Middle School, the street is quiet. Just 30 minutes earlier, the block was bustling with students. India dashes out of the car, late once again for her first class.
Hardy is in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC, 10 miles from India’s home in Deanwood, in the northeast area of the city. During rush hour, driving from the eastern to the western edge of the city can take Vanessa and India between 45 minutes and 1.5 hours. DC doesn’t provide school buses (except for students with special needs), so many students commute by car or public transportation.
Where do sixth-graders from Ward 7 go to school?
Notes: Each dot represents the path of at least one student, based on estimated driving time to school. Data from 2013–14 school year for DC public schools and public charter schools.
India’s average commute is about 60 minutes. The average driving commute time of all sixth-grade students in DC is 12.7 minutes. For all sixth-grade students in Ward 7, the municipal area where India lives, the average driving commute time is 18.0 minutes.
Through the DC Public Schools lottery system, India got the chance to attend Hardy, a high-performing school outside the bounds of her neighborhood, even though it meant facing a long daily commute and being the only kid from her neighborhood at Hardy.
Share of DC students at a school where they are the only one from their neighborhood
Notes: Urban Institute analysis of student-level data. A student’s neighborhood is defined as the student’s home census tract.
DC is one of many cities that have expanded school choice options in recent years, through policies such as inter- and intradistrict choice, the growth of charter schools, and tax credit scholarships or vouchers for private schools.
In DC, all students can enter a lottery to go to the public school of their choice, regardless of whether it’s their neighborhood school. DC also has a robust charter school system, along with a means-tested private-school voucher program for low-income families.
But new choices can also mean trade-offs for families, and the school that best meets a family's needs might be on the other side of town.
Cities have tried to address this transportation issue in different ways. DC gives students the DC One card through the Kids Ride Free program, which allows students in DC schools to travel to and from school for free. Other cities, like New Orleans and New York, offer yellow buses for certain age groups and school types.
Commute times vary more for students who take public transit than for those who drive
Skyler Clay, a ninth-grader at School Without Walls in the northwest DC neighborhood of Foggy Bottom, travels about 30 minutes on the public bus from her home in Columbia Heights. This is the 14-year-old’s first year at the prestigious magnet school after testing in last year.
While house hunting six years ago, Skyler’s mom, Sulee, knew she wanted to stay as close as possible to some of DC’s top schools, many of which are in northwest DC. Skyler and her 13-year-old brother, Preston, who attends Alice Deal Middle School in Friendship Heights, use the DC One card to get to and from school.
Where do ninth-graders from Ward 1 go to school?
Notes: Each dot represents the path of at least one student, based on estimated transit time to school. Data from 2013–14 school year for DC public schools and public charter schools.
Skyler’s average public transit commute is about 30 minutes. The average public transit commute time of all ninth-grade students in DC is 30.7 minutes. For all ninth-grade students in Ward 1, the municipal area where Skyler lives, the average public transit commute time is 23.4 minutes.
Skyler leaves her house around 7:30 every morning, walks down the block to the bus stop, and waits for the H1 bus. The H1 is crowded with professionals on their way to work and almost no other kids, but Skyler likes the quiet atmosphere.
Driving both kids to school would take over an hour, and Sulee has to drive an hour in the other direction to her office in Baltimore. She said some parents worry about their children taking the public bus, but, for her, the benefits outweigh the risks. “It gives the kids a sense of pride and independence to be able to get around the city themselves,” she said.
It helps, of course, that Skyler is in high school. For elementary school students, riding the bus or Metro alone might not be the best option, even if it is the quickest way to school.
Amy Quinn, cofounder and director of teaching and learning at Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School in DC, said the elementary school works closely with students and families facing long commutes to try to make the start of their day less chaotic. “Besides just being late, commutes can cause stress that comes out in academics, because it comes out in behavior,” she said.
Some tactics to help students include providing breakfast in their first class and giving them a few minutes to settle in before jumping into schoolwork. Quinn said administrators at the school “know some families make the choice to come to us, and they’re willing to take on that commute, so we want to make it the best experience we can.”
How commutes differ among students in DC's eight wards
Transportation to school is more of a concern for black students, who consistently have longer commutes to school than white students in DC, as well as in Denver, Detroit, and New York.
Black students in DC, Denver, Detroit, New Orleans, and New York are also more likely than white students to be the only kid from their neighborhood attending their school. Leaving their home neighborhood could allow some students to attend their preferred school, but it could also mean that students and their parents feel less connected to their peers.
Compare data on driving time and transit times to schools across DC, Denver, Detroit, New Orleans, and New York.
Ninth-grade students’ average drive time to school by race
By December, at the end of the fall semester, India’s tardies had stacked up and her long commute was taking a toll. India’s grandmother Vanessa finally made the decision she had been considering for months: pulling India from Hardy midyear and switching her to a neighborhood school. “I decided to do it before [Hardy] could,” she said.
It wasn’t an easy decision. India was happy at Hardy, she made the honor roll last year, and her best friend was there. India has attended six schools over the past seven years, and Vanessa was reluctant to uproot her again, especially in the middle of the year. But the drive added nearly three hours to India’s already long day. “She didn’t have any time to rest,” Vanessa said. “The commute just wasn’t worth it.”
Now, India’s grandmother drives her just five minutes to Kelly Miller Middle School, and India walks home with a friend at the end of the day, arriving by 4. “I’m glad we made the transition,” India said. “We all are.”
“The learning environment will be different, but I know she’ll be able to adapt,” Vanessa said. “She’s always been good at adapting.”
Charts of Washington, DC, student data are based on analysis of student-level data from District of Columbia Public Schools and the Washington, DC, Public Charter School Board for students in sixth and ninth grade in the 2013–14 school year. Ward-level demographic information is from 2010 Census data. Travel times are estimated using the Google Maps Distance Matrix API. The accompanying report has more information on how travel times were calculated for each city and analysis of Washington, DC, data, as well as data from Denver, Detroit, New Orleans, and New York City.
Project credits: Research by Kristin Blagg and Matthew Chingos, design by Mal Jones, development by Daniel Wood, editorial by Elizabeth Forney and Alexandra Tilsley, photography by Lydia Thompson, and writing by Emily Peiffer