Roselin Trinidad’s mother came to Rhode Island from the Dominican Republic with one burning desire: to provide her daughters with the education they would need to build successful lives. She came here because it was common knowledge that every resident in the United States, no matter how rich or how poor, has a basic right to a free public school education.
That was the promise, at least. But upon moving to Providence, Roselin’s family found that this “free” public education was not as free as they had hoped and dreamed. In order to access our schools, students first need to be able to get to school, and for Roselin and thousands of other Providence high school students, this basic access is difficult to obtain.
Roselin’s problem is that, in Providence, high school students are not eligible to receive free bus passes to help get to class unless they live over three miles from their schools. Everyone who lives under this distance — even if only by the slimmest fraction of a mile — is expected to get to school on their own, either on foot or by paying the $4 (or, with transfer, $5) it takes for a RIPTA ride there and back.
This means that in the predominantly low-income Providence public school district, hard-working parents are being asked to pay thousands and thousands of dollars over the course of their children’s high school careers — money that many families simply do not have.
But the burden is greatest on students, who regularly have to choose between missing school or walking daunting distances through the snow, ice, or rain. Given this choice, it is no wonder that Providence sees a greater increase in daily absenteeism rates between the winter and non-winter seasons than any other Rhode Island district. According to a recent study by Serve Rhode Island, the average daily absenteeism rate in Providence during last year’s winter season was more than double the absenteeism rate during the spring season, whereas East Providence, Cumberland, Bristol-Warren, and West Warwick — which all have reasonable walk distances of 1.5 or two miles — saw an increase in winter absenteeism of only 1.91 percentage points.
In fact, Providence’s three-mile walking distance is highly unusual. In our research, we could not find another city — not a single one — with an equivalently stingy transportation policy. No other district in New England even comes close. Boston has a two-mile walking distance. Hartford has a two-mile walking distance. Fall River? Two miles. Worcester? Two miles. Springfield is 1.5 miles. The list goes on and on.
As a youth-led organization with members who struggle to get to school every day, the Providence Student Union has been working hard to bring attention to this critically important issue. We know that there are no simple problems when it comes to the Providence Public Schools — the system is constantly struggling with funding, and we recognize the position our district leaders are in. But if basic access to our schools is not a fundamental priority, we do not know what is.