Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

Students talk about what it’s like to rise so early for school. (Video by Della Hasselle)

When Jenny Joseph brings her two boys to their bus stop in eastern New Orleans at 5:50 a.m., it is still dark outside — but she says the hour-and-a-half bus ride to school is well worth it.

Nine-year-old David and four-year-old Charles arrive at Morris Jeff Community School in Mid-City just before 7:30 a.m., when breakfast is served. School starts at 8.

They aren’t the only students in New Orleans catching the bus before 6 a.m.

Martin Behrman, located near Algiers Point, starts picking up students in eastern New Orleans at 5:42 a.m. Meanwhile, some students get up that early to cross the river in the other direction: Sarah T. Reed High School, a traditional public school located in eastern New Orleans, picks up students on the West Bank starting at 5:39 a.m.

Before Hurricane Katrina, most students attended public schools in their neighborhoods. Now that most schools are open-enrollment charters, it’s not unusual for children to commute across the city.

“It’s tiring,” David said while waiting at the corner of Michoud and West Cavelier Drive, where he catches the bus before the sun comes up.

Jenny Joseph waves goodbye to her sons after they board their bus at 6 a.m. in eastern New Orleans last week.
Jenny Joseph waves goodbye to her sons after they board their bus at 6 a.m. in eastern New Orleans last week. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

Even though the bus ride is long, his mother said she is more than willing to send the boys across town to Morris Jeff because she’s so happy with the school.

“They’ve done wonders with David and his education,” Joseph said. “When David went there, he was behind on reading and now he’s doing really well.”

She enrolled David at Morris Jeff four years ago. Two years ago, when her family moved to eastern New Orleans, she kept him there.

Rousing the boys early wasn’t a problem, she said, once they got used to the routine.

Just down the street, children and their parents waited in cars at the intersection of Michoud Boulevard and Adventure Avenue. They were headed to Warren Easton Charter High School, Mary Dora Coghill Accelerated Charter School, KIPP Central City Academy, KIPP Central City Primary and other charters.

Viola Schief drives her four children to that stop each morning; they catch the bus at 6:26 a.m.

“I feel exhausted,” said Schief’s son, Nimon Henry. “I don’t even have time to eat breakfast.”

His routine doesn’t allow for dilly-dallying. He wakes up, brushes his teeth, puts on his clothes, grabs his homework and is out the door, lest he miss the bus.

And while the 9-year-old told The Lens he gets up at 6 a.m., his mother whispered with a smile that it was more like 5:30 and that sometimes he falls back asleep.

Schief says her kids get home at about 5 p.m. four days a week — meaning they’re away from home for about 11 hours a day. After homework and dinner, sleep is the priority.

According the National Sleep Foundation, children aged 5 to 12 need 10 to 11 hours of sleep. Less than that can hurt their ability to learn, the foundation says.

Schief said her children didn’t always have this long of a commute. But Schief transferred her children from Einstein Charter School, which is only two miles away, to KIPP Central City Primary and KIPP Central City Academy, more than 15 miles away.

“We live all the way in Michoud and their school is Uptown,” she said, “So yes, they have to get up earlier.”

Those long days take their toll. “A lot of times by 8:30, they’re knocked out — they’re exhausted,” Schief said.

“But it’s a better school than the school they were attending,” she added. “So I mean it’s worth the sacrifice.”

Jared Frank, the director of finance and operations of Morris Jeff, agreed that the freedom of school choice often comes with the sacrifice of getting up earlier. “It’s really about two things, right? It’s about school choice and it’s about saving money,” Frank told The Lens after a recent board meeting.

Three buses that pick up students for three different charter schools arrive at Michoud Boulevard and Adventure Avenue around 6:15 one morning.
Three buses that pick up students for three different charter schools arrive at Michoud Boulevard and Adventure Avenue around 6:15 one morning. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

In the current system of public charter schools, the Recovery School District, the Orleans Parish School Board and independently operated charter schools each contract bus services separately.

Morris Jeff expects to spend about $182,740, or about 4.6 percent of its annual budget, on transportation this school year. That’s relatively low compared to the 15 to 19 percent that some New Orleans schools budget.

“We’d rather be putting that money in education,” Frank said. He also added in an email that the school instructs bus companies to have the kids at the school in time for breakfast.

The Algiers Charter School Association oversees Martin Behrman Elementary, which has the bus route that begins at 5:42 a.m. in eastern New Orleans.

Adrian Morgan, chief executive officer of the charter school group, said it’s still in the process of finalizing bus routes this early in the school year.

“Nobody likes having a stop that early,” Morgan said. “We’re not thrilled about it at all.”