The school district in New Britain, Conn., has reached out to the city’s Department of Public Works to find solutions around transportation challenges for students traveling to school during inclement winter weather. The collaboration marks the beginning of a conversation with the city agencies about how snow removal, traffic congestion and other issues affect school attendance, said Joe Vaverchak, New Britain’s Director of Attendance.
The Consolidated School District of New Britain is an urban district serving slightly over 10,000 students, many who live in high poverty. Many of the district’s students walk or take the bus to school. Heavy snow presents real challenges for children trying to get to school and sometimes even keeps students stranded at home. During last school year’s brutal snowfall, piles of snow in New Britain were so high at bus stops that students had to wait in the street, posing dangers for both students and the drivers trying to get to work. Walkers were equally affected by sidewalks that remained uncleaned for up to several days.
Jim Williamson, President of the Community Foundation of Greater New Britain,
convened a meeting to discuss the situation after Vaverchak and James Jones, CFGNB Board member and a local school administrator suggested that the city’s public works department could make a difference in improving winter school travel. Jones had tracked attendance data from the prior winter, which showed the direct relationship between street and sidewalk cleaning and an increase in chronic absence at his school. The meeting took place in November with representatives from the Community Foundation, Department of Public Works, Vaverchak and Jones. “The meeting was a simple connect-the-dots exercise which will help assure that more students attend school regularly – and arrive safely when they do,” Williamson said.
The group discussed the areas of the city with streets that could be dangerous with too much snow, and brainstormed solutions such as preparing the streets before snow falls or making certain streets a priority for snow clearing. They also talked about moving bus stops to safer locations, and strategically placing buses best equipped for snow in the most difficult neighborhoods.
The conversations began with both sides learning something, Vaverchak said. The public works department wasn’t aware of the distances that many kids travel to get to school, and the district learned of certain areas in the city where snow build up could keep cars from getting through. “Schools can’t do it themselves. We should be working together, since we are all trying to solve the same issue,” Vaverchak said.
The district plans to reach out to the police department as well as the bus company that works with the district to join the next meeting. The police “can be the eyes out there because even in a blizzard they are still out there patrolling,” Vaverchak added.
The New Britain school district has already made important gains in improving school attendance, having reduced absenteeism in kindergarten by 44% since 2011. Attendance across the K-3rd grades has improved 38.25% over that same time period. Working with community stakeholders to improve school travel during the winter months is another part of the district’s commitment to reduce absenteeism for students at all grade levels, Vaverchak said.