Closing Bridge Street School Contradicts Smart Growth Goals

Due to Northampton’s looming budget shortfall, it has been widely reported that Bridge Street Elementary School is at risk of closing. We appreciate that the closure could save $400,000, but it goes against some of the better goals of the Sustainable Northampton Plan, which include getting people out of their cars and encouraging them to live downtown through amenities (as opposed to coercing them with laws).

On page 11 of the Sustainable Northampton Plan, Land Use objective number 5 states:

Locate housing within walking distances along safe paths, or with bicycle access, to and from neighborhood commercial areas, parks and recreation, schools, and public transportation.

On page 51, one metric of progress is “Percent of children able to walk to school”.

It is well known that mothers of young children are heavy users of cars. The Surface Transportation Policy Partnership reports (2002, emphasis added):

Mothers are spending more time behind the wheel than ever before, and this is leaving less time for the rest of their lives, for everything from playing with children to simply getting a good night’s rest. On a typical day, the average mother spends more than an hour driving, traveling 29 miles and taking more than five trips. Many of the stops along the way are to run errands, or to pick up or drop off someone else. Research shows women are making more and more of these trips and are driving further to accomplish them. Part of the reason mothers drive so many places is that they are often the sole transportation provider for children and elderly parents, who cannot drive and have few other options. Women are called upon to make about two-thirds of the trips to pick up and drop off other people…

…while everyone is driving more, women — particularly moms — are the ones who squeeze more trips into their day than anyone else (See trip graph).

From 1990 to 1995, the number of trips women took rose by 13 percent. Whether they work or not, married women with school-age children now make more than five trips a day, 20 percent more than the average for all women, and 21 percent more than the average man…

Taking more trips and driving more miles means women, especially mothers, are spending a lot of time in a car. According to the most recent available federal data, women overall spend 64 minutes per day in a car. Single mothers spend 75 minutes a day in the car. And married mothers with school-aged children spend 66 minutes a day driving — that is almost 17 solid days in the car. This is more time than the average American spends in conversation or participating in sports…

Why do women, especially mothers of school-age children, make so many trips and spend so much time on the road? The answer lies in the way we’ve built our communities: places where children must be chauffeured everywhere, and where shops, schools, and homes are so spread out that women must take numerous car trips just to get everything done. Two types of trips, chauffeur service and errand running, are making life especially hectic for women…

Children have become highly dependent on adults with cars, because the places where they learn or play often can’t be reached by foot or by bicycle. As suburban schools consolidate into larger buildings and recreation centers are built far from residential areas, parents find themselves left with no choice but to drive their kids just about everywhere…

Indeed, as more and more kids are driven to school, the walk to school is fast disappearing. Almost 50 percent of five- to nine-year-olds get to school by car, and only 11 percent actually walk. Since 1990, the number of kids walking to school has gone down 23 percent, as car trips have continued to rise…

Officials cite declining enrollment as a reason to consider closing the Bridge Street School (Gazette, 3/13/08). However, the Sustainable Northampton Plan envisions accommodating “the vast majority of new smart growth residential development” within Northampton’s Traditional Neighborhood and Receiving Zone, which precisely characterizes the Bridge Street neighborhood.

If Sustainable Northampton achieves its goals, it seems likely that Bridge Street School enrollments will rise. If, on the other hand, the school is closed, the result will likely be more car trips across the city as neighborhood parents drive their children to other schools. School buses can help, but they are not as healthy as walking, they’ll need to travel longer routes, and they are a factor in pollution and traffic congestion. Moreover, these buses don’t do much for faculty, staff, or off-hour visits to the school, such as for parent-teacher conferences, sports and other extra-curricular activities. And, too, buses are costly. The Gazette reports that school bus service to Northampton High School may get the ax to save money.

If City Hall wants people to live downtown, attracting them with core amenities like greenspace and quality public schools is a great way to do it, especially as compared with more coercive measures that might restrict housing choice and encourage people to move to neighboring towns, or measures that might imperil what open space remains in our built-up areas.

See also:

Springfield Republican: “Schools slash transport funds” (1/31/09)
The School Department aims to slash $1.8 million in school transportation costs by major changes, including a reduction in the number of buses next week that has triggered objections and concerns among bus drivers.

The reduction in buses – from 111 in September to 81 on Monday – are among changes being implemented by Superintendent of Schools Alan J. Ingram in response to a $7.5 million deficit in the school transportation budget…

Gazette: “Mayor to lead a series of city budget meetings” (3/25/08)
Mayor Clare Higgins is leading a series of meetings to explain to city
residents the situation for the city’s Fiscal ’09 operating budget…

Tonight’s meeting is for Ward 4 residents, and is being held at 6:30
p.m. in the Council Chambers of the Puchalski Municipal Building.

The Ward 3 meeting was held Monday night at the Bridge Street School.

Other meeting dates are as follows: Tuesday, April 2, for Ward 7 at
Leeds School cafeteria; Monday, April 7, for Ward 6 at the R.K. Finn
Ryan Road School gymnasium; Tuesday, April 8 for Ward 1 at the Jackson
Street School library; Wednesday, April 9, Ward 5 at Florence Civic
Center; Wednesday, April 23, Ward 2, in the Little Theater at
Northampton High School. All meetings are to run from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30
p.m. on the scheduled days.

Sustainable Northampton Public Schools Petitions City to Defer Decision on Bridge Street School for One Year (3/25/08)
A new organization, Sustainable Northampton Public Schools,
has launched to protect the quality of the city’s public schools during
the current fiscal hard times. They are circulating the following petition:

Dear Elected Officials of Northampton,

There’s no question the budget climate is brutal, and that as much as
we are all heartsick about it, very painful cuts will have to occur.
One possible cut is the closing of an elementary school – a move would
be felt far beyond just the children themselves. This decision would
affect the entire city.

Therefore, we strongly urge you to do the following:

Defer the decision on closing a school for one year.

And during that year, conduct a due diligence study on the full impact
(educational and economic) of closing a school, including everything
from city property values and the quality of learning to traffic flow
and gymnasium crowding…

Mayor Presents Latest Northampton City Budget, Proposed School Budget Reductions (3/24/08)
You may download the Mayor’s handouts as a PDF (6 pages, 199KB)…

Superintendent Rodriguez-Babcock said the school system aims to present
its recommendations to the Mayor by the end of April. It is possible
they will recommend the closure of Bridge Street School. Some members
in the audience felt that making such a major and hard-to-reverse
decision in such a short time was hasty.

recommendations are made, we hope the School Committee will consider if
they will increase costs elsewhere. Specifically, if Bridge Street
School is closed, it is probable that bus and car trips will surge as
neighborhood students need to be transported to schools farther away.
In effect, some of the city’s cost savings will result in higher costs
at the household level, along with increased pollution and time lost to

Education World: “Are Smaller Schools Better Schools?” (7/20/00)
Researchers Craig Howley, of Ohio University and the Appalachia Educational Laboratory, and Robert Bickel, of Marshall University, set out to find out whether smaller schools could reduce the negative effects of poverty on student achievement. In four separate studies of seven states, they repeatedly found that poor kids do better if they attend a small school…

The researchers also found all students benefited from attending small schools, regardless of the levels of community poverty. That was especially true in Montana. In fact, groups of less-affluent students out-performed groups of more-affluent students on standardized tests in the eighth grade if they attended a smaller school…

The researchers found that student achievement was greater in the small schools than in the larger schools. Students, parents, teachers, and community volunteers reported greater satisfaction because they felt more connected to one another, Wasley told Education World…

Although a variety of factors affect student achievement, the greatest factor was the reduction of anonymity — going to a school where someone knows you and your name. Being known by your teachers and peers makes a difference, Wasley noted.

The study found that small schools are also safer for this reason. “We really think that size does have to do with the reduction of anonymity and isolation of students, which reduces fighting and violence,” Wasley explained.

Students took more responsibility for their behavior and the behavior of their classmates in small schools. They told researchers they fought less because they knew one another.