Syracuse: Where Walking to School is a Necessity

By Kimberly Brown and Noah Eagle SYRACUSE, N.Y. (NCC News) — When people think about going to school in the morning, they generally think yellow school bus or waiting outside in the morning.  They may think of being frustrated when the driver is a few minutes late or find ways of trying to maintain art projects when hitting a pothole.

In the Syracuse City School District (SCSD) young kids and teenagers don’t have that luxury.

The SCSD has had economic issues in the past.  Heavily relying on state aid, busing has always been a topic of conversation.  Up until this past school year, only students living outside a two-mile radius from their respective schools were granted busing, a policy Syracuse taxi driver Bobby Hunter is very familiar with.

“You’re adding another half hour or 45 minutes to your school day on each end,” said Hunter, who has lived in the city for 46 years and knows all about having to walk to and from school.

Hunter attended Corcoran high school on Glenwood Avenue.  Unfortunately, his family’s residence did not make the cutoff for the busing, being 1.9 miles from the school.  The poor proximity meant a long walk for Hunter and his siblings every morning and afternoon in a very consistent, bitterly cold climate.

“The winters were a steadier type of weather pattern,” said Hunter.  “It’s not like we’ve been experiencing lately, where one year you have almost no snow and then the next year, you’re inundated with snow. It was every year, you could expect snow right around thanksgiving, and it wasn’t gone until the end of March.”

Syracuse is known for its aggressive weather patterns making walks to school even worse (c) “Average Weather Statistics for Syracuse” by Kai Brinker is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5

Syracuse is known for its aggressive weather patterns making walks to school even worse (c) “Average Weather Statistics for Syracuse” by Kai Brinker is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5

Poor weather was not even Hunter’s main concern when walking to or from school.  The former student cited numerous occasions that he was tormented during his walk back after class.  He talked about kids “zeroing in” on anybody who wasn’t part of a group, making the walk even more difficult than it already was.

“My first year at Corcoran, I spent a lot of time running home,” said Hunter about his freshman year of high school.

Hunter and many others in the Syracuse community feel that although the SCSD has been able to reduce the distance each child has to walk, it is not quite enough.  However, there is another side to the story that most of the people of Syracuse don’t get to see.

“There is what we call danger and what normal people, not transportation people, call danger,” said Mary Ellen Killenbec, the director of transportation for the SCSD.

The district feels they know how to keep their pupils out of harm’s way.  Although they would want to be able to transport every kid, K-12, the hit on the district’s budget would be absolutely detrimental. According to Mary Habib, an accountant and manager of the budget at the SCSD, just reducing the radius from it’s current mile and a half to a clean mile for solely the K-8 students, would cost them $3.6 million dollars.

High school students outside of the accepted radius take the Centro bus system as their means of transportation (c) Noah Eagle 2016

High school students outside of the accepted radius take the Centro bus system as their means of transportation (c) Noah Eagle 2016

Mary Habib is a parent in the SCSD, and understands why parents are concerned about their children walking to school. Like Hunter, one of her biggest anxieties when she would walk her kids to school was the weather.

“I was thinking it’s a four block walk, have the sidewalks been shoveled? is it cold out?” said Habib.

Habib explained that the busing radius is determined by the transportation aid, and the SCSD is 80 percent dependent on state aid. She claimed the whole busing situation is decided based by the state and its allotted budget, which is completely out of the district’s control. Habib also went into how this is a situation that doesn’t amend itself overnight.

“It’s not something that we decide tomorrow that we are going to start busing more people next month, it takes planning and a lot of preparation,” said Habib.

Habib does agree the the mile and a half radius is still a long way for students to walk and can definitely see why parents are not satisfied. A large concern among parents is that their children have to walk through neighborhoods that are, “less desirable than others.”

Habib also says that this affects attendance and academic achievement at school. Put simply, if the kids aren’t present they aren’t learning. According to Habib, since the change in radius to one and a half miles both categories have been steadily improving.

“People want what’s best for their kids, as do we, unfortunately we’re held to the constraints of what the district can accommodate,” said Habib.

Killenbec agrees with both Hunter and Habib that the weather is a major factor hindering children from walking to school.

“The children are smaller than some of the snow mounds,” says Killenbec. “We want everyone to be safe. We would love to transport everybody.”

She says about 5000 high school students are transported and 10,000 K-8 students are also transported.

The district’s budget is consistently in the works, the busses taken into account (C) Kimberly Brown 2016

The district’s budget is consistently in the works, the buses taken into account (C) Kimberly Brown 2016

Safety is a concern for Killenbec but explained that in transportation policy, mobile danger such as a shooting is not something that the transportation system can accommodate for. On the other hand, something that does not move, such as railroad tracks or highways are more concrete are different stories.

“If we have a drug dealing or shooting on a corner you can’t call that a danger because that could happen on the next corner the next day, and so you would be calling everything danger, where the railroad track probably isn’t going to change,” said Killenbec.

Aside from being a former student, Bobby Hunter is also a concerned parent about the safety of children walking to and from school and facing crime. Just two weeks ago Hunter witnessed a gang fight just two blocks away from a school that he was picking up some familiar students from. He said he saw about 30 or 40 kids just beating each other up.

Looking ahead, Hunter said he is very concerned with what his two-year-old daughter would have to face going to school.

“I already have thoughts of worry and frustration,” he said.

Hunter’s concern over predators and safety in the school district has him considering other options for his daughter.

“Even if it costs me 10,000 dollars a year I would probably sacrifice vacation and everything else to send my daughter to a private school so she could have a better atmosphere,” said Hunter.

Hunter believes the problems on the streets and in the classroom start at home, and busing can only do so much to help the bigger communal issues.

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