These Detroit Parents Endure Insane Commutes Just to Get Their Kids to School

It’s no secret that Detroit schools are in trouble—but few know of the huge logistical obstacles some parents must navigate to get their kids to better options far from home. 

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Remember that inspirational story from last year about the Detroit “walking man,” who reportedly trudged 21 miles to and from his factory job every day, a victim of his town’s poor job market and terrible public transportation infrastructure? Now comes the education version of that odyssey, with Erin Einhorn’s account, in Chalkbeat Detroit, of the remarkable picaresque journeys that some Detroit parents take to get their kids to schools far from home.

Six hours, eight buses: The extreme sacrifice Detroit parents make to access better schools” is this week’s must-read in education news not just for what it says about the difficulties of life in Detroit, but for how it dramatizes what happens to the people, often in poor minority neighborhoods, left behind after neighborhood schools close. Of the schools near one family, Einhorn writes:

They were among 195 Detroit public schools that closed between 2000 and 2015 as the district’s enrollment fell from 162,693 students to 47,959. More than 100 new public and charter schools opened during the same time period, but the new schools weren’t placed around the city based on neighborhood need.

Any college or university in Michigan can authorize a charter school and charter schools can open anywhere they find an appropriate building. So schools open where real estate is available, there is a perception of safety, and teachers want to work.

The result is a mismatch between where students live and where schools are located.

The story features two parents who make herculean treks five days a week—93.5 miles roundtrip and 3 hours a day in one case; 52 miles and between 5 and 6 hours in the other—to and from school, in search of better educational opportunities for their kids, often at great personal expense. But then what choice do they have? As the decent schools depart their neighborhoods, many of these desperate parents have no choice to wait in the cold and dark for buses that will take their kids where they need to be.

Will we be seeing more of these long-distance school commutes nationwide as the charter sector continues to grow? After all, Detroit isn’t the only place where neighborhood schools are no longer the institutions they once were: More than three-quarters of students in post-Katrina New Orleans go to charters, often with equally epic travel times, and in D.C., where I live, the charter share is 44 percent. Even without the grueling commutes that some Detroit parents face, the splintering of communities seems inevitable. To cite just one trivial example: My neighbors and I used to have a bimonthly book club, and once, at the height of school-lottery season, I remarked how the nine of us, despite living within a five-block radius, sent our kids to six different schools. Now, as those kids get older and have more activities and obligations in farther-flung parts of the city, our book club has dissolved. If we all still bumped into one another on the short walk to a shared school several times a week, we’d probably have a much easier time scheduling our post-bedtime pinot-and-prose sessions.