Schools
 

Orleans Parish School Board to study long bus rides, early pickups

The Orleans Parish School Board plans to hire a consultant to study transportation and enrollment at the city’s schools in response to parents’ complaints about long bus rides, pickup and dropoff times and the lack of air conditioning.

Most public schools in New Orleans are charters, open to anyone regardless of where they live. That means some youngsters catch a bus before dawn to trek across the Mississippi River or to the other side of town. The longest rides can last more than two hours.

Children gather at bus stops within walking distance of one school, waiting for a bus to take them to another. In some cases, buses arrive at school before the buildings are open, so students wait on board.

“Consistently, transportation has been a top issue of concern for community members,” school district spokeswoman Dominique Ellis wrote in a statement.

A resolution, to be considered at the board’s meeting Thursday, authorizes the Orleans schools superintendent to hire a consultant to recommend changes to district and school policies on transportation and enrollment.

The study could lead to changes in how children get to and from the city’s loose confederation of publicly-funded, independent charter schools, which are generally free to run their own affairs in exchange for meeting academic and other standards. Similar changes have been made in recent years to address complaints about enrollment and expulsion.

“One of the great parts of our system of schools is that children can attend a school even if it’s not near their house,” Ellis wrote. “So we all need to come together to make sure that the system is fair, affordable, and results in all kids being able to access the transportation they need to attend their school of choice, even if it is on the other side of town.”

Step Up Louisiana, an advocacy group focused on economic and educational issues, wants buses to pick up no earlier than 7 a.m. and no later than 5 p.m.

One bus schedule, for example, shows a student in eastern New Orleans who attends Eisenhower Academy of Global Studies in Algiers would be gone for 12 hours a day.

The bus picks up in eastern New Orleans at 4:52 a.m. and arrives at Eisenhower at 7:15 a.m. That’s when breakfast begins; classes start a half-hour later.

In the afternoon, that bus leaves school at 2:55 and returns to the East at 4:55.

The original school board resolution, introduced Tuesday at a committee meeting, said students should be able to attend schools within walking distance of their homes and with their siblings, buses should have air conditioning, and time spent on the bus should be reduced or restricted.

But charter school representatives raised questions at the committee meeting.

“I caution board members in assuming what recommendations may need to come from this without first assessing the current state of affairs across the city,” said Eva Kemp, director of Democrats for Education Reform.

The revised resolution dropped the recommendations, instead describing several issues that should be studied, such as “parents’ desire to minimize travel time on school buses.”

Step Up also wants each bus to have air conditioning and an adult supervising students while the driver watches the road. Some of those goals brush up against charter schools’ autonomy.

Patrick Dobard, the former superintendent of the Recovery School District and current head of New Schools for New Orleans, said he supports studying transportation and enrollment issues. He said the draft resolution was not “representative of a majority of families using the systems.”

Most schools in the city are required to provide transportation. Charter networks and schools contract individually with companies to provide busing, which is often a school’s second-highest expense after payroll.

Some schools save money by offering drop-off points in each area. Others share bus service, picking up students in one area who attend a couple of elementary schools.

One charter school is challenging the requirement to provide busing. Einstein Charter Schools does not provide yellow buses for students, saying it meets requirements by offering vouchers for public transit.

The Orleans Parish School Board disagrees and has sued the charter group.

The board will vote on the item Thursday night. If approved, the contractor is supposed to deliver suggestions by June.

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About Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned to New Orleans in the fall of 2014 after covering education for the St. Cloud Times in Minnesota. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with majors in journalism and social welfare and a concentration in educational policy studies.