Why Johnny and Jana Can’t Walk to School


| September/October 2001


As autumn rolls around again, we’re resuming a favorite ritual at our house. My son, Soren, starts first grade, and so each morning he, his mother, Julie, and I will stroll a few blocks to the Clara Barton public school, built in 1911 and recently renovated to add a gym. Along the way we’ll note the falling leaves, the steadily later sunrise, the morning frost, and so on through the school year until tulips bloom and the scent of lilacs hang in the breeze.

Walking to school is a special childhood rite of initiation, but, sadly, it is disappearing from the life of many American communities. And not for the reasons many people think. Racial integration plans and fear of abduction drive fewer kids into school buses and parents’ minivans than other, less recognized factors: the closing of small neighborhood schools and speeding traffic that imperils pint-sized pedestrians.

"Communities are abandoning historic neighborhood schools that students can walk to in favor of new schools the size of shopping malls built in far-flung locations," writes Edward T. McMahon, director of the American Greenways Program, in a dispatch for the Elm Street Writers Group, an online news service covering environmental and community issues (www.mlui.org).

"Schools serve as community anchors," McMahon notes. Many events, from Little League games to fitness classes to public meetings, happen after-hours at the local school. The fact that many of these threatened schools are in inner-city neighborhoods or struggling small towns means that their closing cuts deep into the heart of places that already have been battered.

Alarmed by what’s happening all across the country, the National Trust for Historic Preservation included neighborhood schools in its 2000 list of America’s Most Endangered Historic Places. But this is a bigger issue than simply architectural heritage. Communities that have lost their school feel different without kids laughing and clowning along the sidewalks. It’s more difficult for parents (especially low-income families) to participate in activities at distant schools, and they must shoulder more responsibility for chauffeuring their kids home from after-school programs.

Bigger, far-flung schools add to the already rising costs of education. A study in Maine found that while school enrollment in the state dropped by 27,000 between 1970 and 1995, the annual costs for busing jumped from $8.7 million to $54 million, due in large part to the consolidation of local schools.

The trend toward larger, out-of-the-way schools defies a tide of recent evidence showing that small schools serve students better than large ones do (see Utne Reader, Jan./Feb. 2001, p. 26).

Kathleen Cotton, an educational research specialist at the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory in Portland, Oregon, notes that "a large body of research in the affective and social realms [of child development] overwhelmingly affirms the superiority of small schools."

"Although it is often assumed that large schools are cheaper to operate and provide richer curricula than small schools," Cotton is quoted in Planning Commissioners Journal (Summer 2000), "studies show that neither of these things [is] necessarily true."

Low-income kids, especially, feel the effects of big schools, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which reported "the gap in academic achievement between rich schools and poor schools is greatly reduced when schools are smaller."

The trend toward demolishing existing schools in favor of big, new ones represents something more than just shifting population and the obsolescence of old buildings. McMahon explains that state and national educational policies greatly favor building new schools over renovating existing ones. He notes that the Council of Educational Facility Planners International, a professional organization, established a formula governing the size of school grounds that is completely blind about land use patterns in urban areas. As McMahon explains, "A 2,000-student high school requires at least 50 acres, or more than almost any city, big or small, has available near its residential neighborhoods." (The National Trust for Historical Preservation is now working with the Council to develop a new formula that takes urban land use into account, reports Preservation magazine [July/Aug. 2001].)

An even bigger obstacle are regulations in most states that forbid funding of school renovations if the costs are half or two-thirds the price of building a new one. And The New York Times reports that school renovation costs are sometimes grossly inflated. The price tag for fixing up the 1914 Kokomo (Indiana) High School, for example, was figured at $20 million to $25 million, but the work was eventually done for $4 million.

Innovative efforts underway in Maryland show that a shift in

policies can make a dramatic difference in preserving neighborhood schools. As part of Governor Parris Glendening’s campaign to curb sprawl, the state has evened the playing field in funding between school renovation and new construction. In 1995, just 34 percent of state funding went to improvements on existing schools; in 1998 it was 84 percent.

ANOTHER REASON fewer kids are strolling to school these days is fear about them crossing busy streets. But a growing national movement of pedestrian activists are successfully lobbying for new measures to make streets safer for walkers of all ages, reports Governing magazine (May 2001). San Jose, California, for instance, has tripled to $5 million its spending on traffic calming—road design features that induce motorists to slow down. Portland, Oregon, is implementing a comprehensive plan that takes pedestrian concerns into account in the planning of many projects throughout the city. And the state of California is spending $20 million a year to identify "safe routes to school" aimed at giving kids an option to walk or bike.

It may seem a trifling concern whether children (and their parents) have the pleasure of walking to school in the morning, but it’s not. The state of our society—and health of our environment—is built upon a foundation of small, everyday events. When the school is miles away, it means more vehicles flood the streets, more kids learn that all mobility begins with the turn of an ignition, more students are funneled through large institutions, and more neighborhoods see a decline in their sense of community. These conditions, in turn, start us down the road to further sprawl, alienation, and a coming generation that accepts those things as perfectly natural. That’s why this renewal of interest across America in preserving kids’ chance to stroll to and from school delights me. And if you’re ever out on the Minneapolis sidewalks in the vicinity of Barton School anytime around 7:30 a.m., please come over and say "hi."