Rural students experience longer, rougher bus rides

April 17, 2001

ATHENS, Ohio - Young children who attend rural schools may spend from 30 to 90 minutes on a one-way school bus trip, according to a new study of 1,194 elementary school principals in five states. The finding raises questions about what impact long rides may have on students' recreation and family time, classroom achievement and safety.

School administrators from rural Georgia, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Washington and Arkansas were more likely than their suburban counterparts to clock their district's longest bus rides at more than 30 minutes. Rural districts, they said, also tend to be more sprawling than suburban school districts - greater than 10 square miles in area, according to the Ohio University study.

Traveling those miles in a school bus on rural roads may be rougher and riskier as well. In all five states, rural buses often journey over unpaved minor routes and mountainous or hilly terrain, the study found. And in some states, buses in rural areas were less likely to be equipped with radios or other communication devices.

"You're sending kids over long distances on rough roads with no way of alerting anybody if there's a problem," said Aimee Howley, professor and chair of educational studies at Ohio University and co-author of the study, which was presented last week at the American Educational Research Association annual meeting in Seattle.

Parents may be affected too, the study found. About 67 percent of elementary school principals who reported bus rides longer than 30 minutes believe that the lengthy trips have a negative impact on parents' involvement in their children's education, due to the distance between home and school.

The findings come at a time when more states are following a trend to close small, local schools in favor of single, consolidated district campuses. As a result, attendance areas for rural school districts are growing, resulting in longer bus rides for more students. Kids not only lose quality family and recreation time, the researchers speculate, but may suffer academically, too - issues the researchers hope to address in a new study of parents in five states now under way.

"Parents - particularly those with younger children - use the long rides that will result as an argument against the closing of schools," Howley said. "But it's typically one of many arguments."

As little research has been done on the length of school bus rides, the researchers wanted to determine first if there was any factual basis for such arguments, said study co-author Craig Howley, an education researcher for Ohio University and AEL, Inc., a nonprofit education institution based in Charleston, W.Va., and supported by the U.S. Department of Education and the Office of Educational Research and Improvement.

Researchers asked principals to fill out a 38-question survey on basic district demographics, characteristics of the transportation system and their students' experience riding the bus. In addition to determining a connection between vast, rural districts and long bus rides, the study found that rural school districts are less likely to employ a full-time bus supervisor and more likely to include middle school and/or high school students on the same bus runs as elementary school kids.

The study findings could be applicable to school transportation policies, as states can regulate the length of student bus rides, according to the researchers. For example, a rural, sprawling district may not be able to meet a maximum ride regulation of 30 minutes. The research also suggests one potential pitfall of district consolidation.

"Smaller schools, which improve achievement in impoverished communities, will also improve the length of bus rides," said Craig Howley, who previously has done research on the impact of school size on student performance.

In their newest study, the researchers now are examining whether the length of bus rides impacts student achievement. Pollsters will interview low-income parents of children who ride rural buses in 10 school districts in five states, with the goal of collecting more detailed information on how economic status, lengthy bus trips and academic performance may be linked.

"The hypothesis is that the gap between poor and wealthy kids on achievement is made worse with long bus rides," said Craig Howley.

Steven Shamblen, a graduate student at Ohio University, collaborated on the recently presented research. The study was funded in part by a grant from the Policy Program of the Rural School and Community Trust, a nonprofit educational organization, and by AEL, Inc.
Written by Andrea Gibson.

Attention Editors, Reporters: The paper on which this news release is based may be viewed on the Web at: <>. To receive the paper by e-mail or fax, e-mail or call Charlene Clifford at (740) 593-0946 or Kelli Whitlock at (740).

Contacts: Aimee Howley, (740) 593-0426,; Craig Howley, (740) 698-0309,

Ohio University

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