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South Side students stuck with longest school commutes, study shows

Students getting off the bus outside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory High School in Chicago on the first day of the CPS school year, Tuesday, September 6, 2016. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Students getting off the bus outside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory High School in Chicago on the first day of the CPS school year, Tuesday, September 6, 2016. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

The average high school student living in Pilsen or Little Village spends 22 minutes traveling 2.4 miles every morning to get to school.

But it takes South Side high schoolers in the Greater Stony Island region about 35 minutes to cover the 4.6 miles separating them from the first bell.

That’s according to the Chicago Public Schools’ Annual Regional Analysis released last week, which for the first time calculated average student commute times rather than just distances, as was the case with last year’s inaugural district-wide analysis.

Citywide, the average high school student spends 28 minutes trekking 3.3 miles to school.

The Pilsen/Little Village high school commute is the city’s shortest this year, according to the analysis, followed closely by the 24 minutes it takes teens to get to school in Lincoln Park and the downtown area.

Far South Siders in the Greater Calumet area also have a prolonged 35-minute commute, matching Stony Island students for the city’s longest.

And while students on the Far Southwest Side shave three minutes off their average commute time compared to Stony Island high schoolers, they still cover the same 4.6-mile average distance, the farthest in Chicago.

Commute distances and times by region for Chicago Public Schools high school students. | Chicago Public Schools graphic

Commute distances and times by region for Chicago Public Schools high school students. | Chicago Public Schools graphic

“People think more about the time they’re spending than the distance they’re covering,” said Daniel Anello, CEO of the non-profit education group Kids First Chicago that helped CPS design the analysis. “Whether you’re walking a mile or taking a train, it matters.”

And for most families, those commute times — based on Google Maps estimations of walking and public transit routes — are relatively low, Anello noted. It takes 15 minutes or less for about 80 percent of CPS’ 361,000 students to get to school each morning.

Commutes are generally quicker for elementary school students, averaging about 15 minutes and 1.4 miles, with corresponding disparities in most of the same areas as high schoolers.

Pilsen and Lincoln Park grade schoolers take about 10 minutes to get about three-quarters of a mile to school, while Stony Island and Bronzeville students have to spend about 20 minutes traveling over 2 miles to get there.

Commute distances and times by region for Chicago Public Schools elementary school students. | Chicago Public Schools graphic

Commute distances and times by region for Chicago Public Schools elementary school students. | Chicago Public Schools graphic

But those times can tick upwards of three times longer for students in some corners of Chicago.

About 7 percent of high schoolers spend at least an hour getting to school — about 7,000 of the district’s roughly 100,000 high school students, Anello said.

Those “really significant” commute times are concentrated in South Side neighborhoods, as well as the Far Southwest Side — often, in areas underserved by mass transit, past the southernmost stops of the CTA Red and Orange lines.

“It’s still much harder for a Stony Island kid than someone on the Near West Side,” Anello said.

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What are families aiming for at the end of these lengthy commutes? Not surprisingly, higher performing schools, Anello said.

Families’ No. 1 factor in choosing a school is its district quality rating, with an “overwhelming demand” for schools with CPS’ top Level 1+ or Level 1 ratings, he said.

Over the last few years, the percentage of students attending schools outside their neighborhood has trended upward, according to the analysis, with about 53 percent this year opting against their zoned schools, often in favor of farther-flung, selective-enrollment options or schools with college STEM or fine arts programs.

That’s especially true for teens in neighborhoods lacking high-rated high schools.

“Kids are traveling farther to get to better schools,” Anello said.

Read CPS’ full 2018-19 Annual Regional Analysis: