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The Bus Kids: Children's Experiences with Voluntary Desegregation

reviewed by Robin L. Leavitt - June 12, 2009

coverTitle: The Bus Kids: Children's Experiences with Voluntary Desegregation
Author(s): Ira W. Lit
Publisher: Yale University Press, New Haven
ISBN: 0300105797, Pages: 224, Year: 2009
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When I was young, I walked to school, sometimes accompanied by my older sister or brother. It was almost a straight line from my home to the school, and the only reason the journey may have taken longer that 20 minutes was because I would day dream and meander along the way. The walk was how I transitioned to and from school each day. That taken-for-granted daily journey seems a suburban idyll of long ago, but not lost completely to all of today’s children and families. My current home in a midsize midwest community is adjacent to a local elementary school and everyday I see middle and working class parents and their children walk together to and from their neighborhood school.

Such journeys are not the experience of “the bus kids” – those children whose stories Ira Lit tells in his text. In a clear ethnographic voice, Lit describes the experiences of “minority students whose parents take advantage of an opportunity to transfer their children out of an impoverished and poor-performing school district and into a neighboring district with a predominantly white student population that is affluent and high performing” (p. 15).


Lit introduces his narrative account of children’s lived experiences by summing a history of persistent segregation in schools -- in the district he studied in particular -- and a contested battle to desegregate California schools. The end result, some 20 years ago, was the establishment of a “voluntary,” interdistrict transfer and desegregation program. (The program is “voluntary” only in that alternate options for better schooling are not available to these families, and certainly not on the part of the children, whose parents have made this decision on their behalf.) Lit’s research question: How do the students fare in their cross-town school?  

Lit explores the impact of busing from several perspectives. In separate chapters he documents children’s long days and problematic transitions to and from a school some distance from their home neighborhood, the impact of the transfer program on children’s friendships and social relations, and the impact of attending a non-neighborhood school on their conceptions of their identities, including racial and linguistic identity. He describes differences among (white middle class) teaching styles and their effect on these minority children, illuminating the taken-for-granted advantages that neighborhood children have at their home school. With each chapter Lit illuminates in ordinary language “the layers of complexity that defines the school experience” for “the bus kids” (p. 10). The experience of transitions he documents include not simply the long bus ride ride from one city to another, but “for many, the transition from a native to a second language; and the transition from one set of cultural, community, and institutional norms to another” (p. 28). He highlights the adaptations required of students which called to my mind class differences explained by, among others, sociologist Annette Lareau (2003) and their influence on children’s success in school.

Lit spent two years gathering observational and interview data about students, their families, and their teachers to write this methodologically sound ethnographic study. He paints a picture of contrast between the “Canford” students who are bused each day to school, and those who live in the school neighborhood of “Arbor Town.” The contrast is immediately established as Lit describes the first day of the school year. In chapter three the reader is on the bus with the children – we are able to place ourselves within their experience, and feel their “sense of distance and isolation” (p. 42). This early theme is repeated throughout the remaining chapters as the reader witnesses the social exclusion[s] in the lives of the bussed students, which “in turn affect the overall success of [their] school experience” (p. 80). In chapters four, five, and six Lit documents students’ experiences as they attempt to adapt to a lack of congruent expectations, values, norms, and practices between their home and school environments, and remain always on the periphery, and poignantly, question their own identity, worthiness, and competence in this new setting.  

In chapter seven, Lit elaborates more fully on the roles and perspectives of the adults, both parents and teachers, as those perspectives illuminate the children’s experience. “The American ideal of enhanced opportunity through educational advancement is pervasive among these parents” (p. 129). Yet, the teachers “feel unprepared for and unsupported in working with the [bussed] students” (p. 134) since the district appears to operate on the assumption that no variation in educational strategies is required to facilitate the success of the bussed students (p. 132).  This point is taken further in chapter eight as Lit explores the impact of classroom practices of well-intended teachers. He raises the question, “When students like Amelia spend much of their time in school pursuing activities in which they experience early and frequent failure, what do they learn about themselves, about school and about the priorities of the community and larger society?” (p. 161).

In his final chapter Lit explores “The Road Ahead” with respect to the “social engineering projects” (p. 170) we as a society have undertaken to address issues of class, race, and school inequity. By pleading that we look at the whole of children’s lived experience as we make policy decisions which affect them, he calls our attention to the intersection of public issues and personal troubles described by sociologist C. Wright Mills (1959). Rarely, as Lit points out, do we reflect on the ways in which we try to solve social problems from the view of the children involved.

Lit’s text is a significant contribution to the field for several reasons. First, it calls our attention to a story that has yet to be fully told. Second, it tells one story from the perspective of children’s lived experiences. Lit’s immersion in the setting is methodologically thoughtful and sound; the text is rich with thick description which places the reader in the setting of “Shady Grove” school. Throughout, the voices of the children are clearly and poignantly present, although more field notes would always be better. Lit refrains from over-interpretation and analysis and most often lets his field notes and interview excerpts speak for themselves. Thus the reader, while still guided by Lit, can place herself in the narrative and draw her own conclusions.  

We may have forgotten that schooling began as a community experience. What are the consequences when schooling takes place outside of one’s community context? That sense of community is lost for those children who are bussed at young ages to unfamiliar sites of schooling, unfamiliar peers, and unfamiliar adults – and the concurrent unfamiliarity of routines, expectations, language and relationships so crucial to academic achievement and social-emotional development. Students and their families remain on the periphery.

Lit’s text provides a model of social justice research of interest to multiple audiences. I recommend “The Bus Kids” to historians and sociologists of education, educational policy scholars, qualitative researchers, and those of us in pursuit of social justice.


Laureau, A. (2003).  Unequal childhoods. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mills, C. W. (1959). The sociological imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 12, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15655, Date Accessed: 1/16/2022 5:12:47 PM

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About the Author
  • Robin Leavitt
    Illinois Wesleyan University
    E-mail Author
    ROBIN LEAVITT is a professor of Educational Studies at Illinois Wesleyan University, where she teaches courses in school desegregation, social justice education, child study, and teacher research. Her publications include qualitative studies of children’s lived emotional experience in early childhood programs. She is co-coordinator of the Promise and Potential partnership which matches tutor-mentors with struggling middle school students.
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