Kindergarten students who take the school bus have fewer absent days over the school year and are less likely to be chronically absent than children who commute to school in any other way, according to new research published online in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.
The study, by Michael A. Gottfried, an associate professor of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is the first to examine whether taking the school bus is associated with fewer absences or reduced chronic absenteeism.
Using a nationally representative sample of 14,370 kindergarten students from a U.S. Department of Education study, Gottfried found that in the 2010-2011 school year, public school kindergarten children who took the bus were two percentage points less likely to be chronically absent by the spring of that year than students in the same school district who did not take the bus -- 12 percent vs. 14 percent. The study defined chronically absent as missing more than 10 days of kindergarten.
Taking the bus could potentially reduce the number of U.S. public school kindergartners who are chronically absent by almost 50,000 students, according to additional analysis by Gottfried.
The difference in the mean number of days missed was fairly small -- 5.72 days per bus rider compared to 5.98 days per non-bus rider. But the cumulative effect in missed instructional days has the potential to be large. Gottfried's analysis indicates that increasing the number of kindergarten students taking the bus could potentially reduce the number of lost instructional days by approximately 1.04 million nationwide.
"Reducing absenteeism in young children is critically important to their futures," Gottfried said. "Absenteeism in kindergarten has been shown to have short- and long-term links to poor academic performance and future absenteeism."
Previously published research, including prior work by Gottfried, has found that kindergarten students with more absences have lower test scores in kindergarten and in future years. But it does not end with test scores. Generally, students who miss more school also tend to have higher rates of grade retention and dropout, more difficulty with social development, greater feelings of alienation, increased drug and alcohol use in young adulthood, and worsened employment prospects.
Furthermore, Gottfried said, "absenteeism has spillover effects; when classmates miss more school, all students in the classroom tend to have lower test scores."
The findings come at a time when many school districts are cutting or restricting bus services -- or considering doing so -- due to rising costs and growing budget pressures.
While some schools and districts, like Chicago Public Schools, are halting bus service entirely, other districts in the past 10 years have reduced access and availability in a number of ways. These include reducing the number of routes, cutting bus stops, or increasing the walk radius (the proximity to school within which students are ineligible for service).
"The country is facing a school absence epidemic at the same that many school districts are considering cutting or restricting bus services," said Gottfried. "These findings should give school leaders pause before they limit the resources on which families rely to ensure their children attend school every day.
"It is especially troubling that the districts where bus services are being reduced are those that serve lower-income students, who tend to have disproportionately higher absence rates," Gottfried said.
"Previous research has found that the transition into kindergarten is stressful for many families," said Gottfried. "School-going logistics, like determining transportation options and adjusting work schedules, can inhibit good school attendance.
"The results of this study suggest that having access to bus services can help establish daily routines that ultimately reduce absences, with possible short- and long-term educational benefits for students," Gottfried said.
Approximately 30 percent of the students analyzed in the study commuted to school by bus. Fifty percent were driven by parents, while 2 percent were driven by other relatives or other adults. About 8 percent walked to school. Other commuting forms were available (i.e., biking) but made up very small proportions of the sample.
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