On a bitterly cold day last winter, Sumaya’s mother placed her on her school bus in Brooklyn. Later that morning, her mother received a frantic call. Sumaya, a nonverbal 13-year-old with autism, had been found at a school far from the one she attended. The bus driver had left her, unsupervised, outside the wrong school. Luckily, instead of wandering off to the park across the street, Sumaya had walked into the school building, where she covered her ears and screamed repeatedly, until a staff member found her. A search of Sumaya's backpack turned up a notebook with her mother's phone number. Her mother still has nightmares about how differently the day could have ended.
Sumaya’s mother was particularly despondent because this occurred on the second day Sumaya had a new bus route, put in place to solve another problem: Her previous bus had routinely picked her up from home half an hour after classes began, causing her to miss speech therapy and special education instruction. To get the new bus route, Sumaya’s mother had called the New York City Department of Education’s Office of Pupil Transportation and made complaint after complaint. Finally, in December, several months into the school year, the transportation office placed Sumaya on a route that was supposed to get her to school on time — if only it had taken her to the right place.
I wish I were more shocked by Sumaya’s story. I work at Advocates for Children of New York, a group that provides legal and advocacy services for students from low-income backgrounds. Every year we hear from numerous parents desperate for help resolving transportation issues so their children can get to school safely. Parents tell us about children dropped off at the wrong stop; buses so late that they don’t arrive at school until after class has started; buses that never show up at all; buses that pick students up at school too early, forcing them to leave class before it is over; bus attendants who lack the training needed to assist children with disabilities, or have resorted to verbal or even physical abuse; routes that are hours long; buses that don’t have air-conditioning in the summer; and students in foster care denied busing altogether.
This academic year got off to a particularly rocky start for the 150,000 city children who rely on the school bus each day. Nearly 130,000 complaints were made to the transportation office call center in the first four weeks alone, an 18 percent increase from last year.
We were encouraged to hear Chancellor Richard Carranza state, at a packed City Council hearing last month, that he would not rest until students got the high-quality, safe and reliable bus service they deserved.
The problems with busing run deep and require bold action. As the city revamps school transportation, it must build a system that works for the students and families it is intended to serve.
The city must design routes that get children to school on time, ensure children can stay in school until the end of class and do not require children to sit on the bus for unreasonably long periods.
The city must ensure that well-vetted drivers and attendants get the training needed to transport children safely; to support students, including those with a variety of disabilities, while on the bus; and to take them to the right stops, including handing them off to parents or school staff members when the children’s needs require it.
The city must design a system that provides more information and better customer service to families. Mr. Carranza has talked about the importance of parent empowerment, but nothing is more disempowering than being met with silence when trying to get answers and assistance for what should be a straightforward problem.
The city should enact Councilman Ben Kallos’s bill to require the city to provide real-time GPS tracking to parents and schools so that parents will know when the bus is coming, what route it is taking and how long their children are on it. This information would allow parents and the school staff to hold the transportation office accountable; help find solutions to late buses or problematic routes; and provide peace of mind. This technology is available in other school districts around the country.
Finally, the city must consider children who need bus service but do not have access to it. While federal and state law require the city to provide transportation for students in foster care so they do not need to change schools when moved to different homes, the school system currently tries to meet this obligation by guaranteeing a MetroCard. While sufficient for many older students, a MetroCard is of no use to a kindergartner who cannot take the subway alone. The city took an important step nearly three years ago by guaranteeing bus service to kindergarten through sixth-grade students living in shelters, and it should extend this service to students in foster care.
As Mayor Bill de Blasio has stated, a quality education is “the most powerful tool we know for lifting one’s life chances.” But before students can learn, they have to be physically present in the classroom. For students who rely on bus service, the time for change is now.
Kim Sweet is the executive director of Advocates for Children of New York.
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