The battle between Einstein Charter Schools and the Orleans Parish School Board over getting kids to school appeared to be over when yellow buses started running last week.
But for families who must navigate bus stops along busy roads in eastern New Orleans, the journey isn’t over. They say buses stop at inconvenient locations that are dangerous to get to.
As the sun rose Friday morning, Yanys Rozhez stood at the driveway of his apartment complex next to a tire shop on Chef Menteur Highway.
His five-year-old son Henry had two options to catch the bus about 7 a.m. each day: Head west to his assigned stop about three-fifths of a mile away at Michoud Boulevard, or go east on Chef, cross the canal on Alcee Fortier Boulevard and wait at Dwyer Boulevard.
“We can’t walk all this, something is gonna be happen,” Rozhez said. “It’s not safe for me and not for him.”
With no sidewalks along that stretch of Chef Menteur, they must walk on the narrow shoulder of the road. A rumble strip separates them from the cars zipping by at 55 mph.
That morning, Henry’s father drove him to the bus stop because it was cold.
Dispute over busing ended last week
The parish school district learned that Einstein wasn’t busing students when a parent complained at a meeting in August.
The school district contended that “free and adequate transportation” was a condition of its charter renewals for Einstein’s four schools. Einstein was ordered to bus kids in grades six and under, starting the week after Thanksgiving.
Einstein argued that it met the school district’s requirement by giving students free vouchers to take the public bus. Nearly all public schools in New Orleans provide yellow bus service.
The school district sued Einstein, and the two sides traded legal briefs over the next several months.
In March, Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. threatened to revoke charters for Einstein’s two elementary schools, Einstein Charter Sherwood Forest and Einstein Charter Village de L’est.
Two days later, the charter board backed down. Lewis later decided not to revoke the charters.
The following week, Einstein’s longtime CEO Shawn Toranto resigned, saying in her resignation letter that busing would pull money out of the classroom.
The buses started rolling on April 16.
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Families complain about bus stop locations
Even though the charter group appears to have met its obligations on paper, the new system is still taxing for some parents.
Before, Rozhez had to drive his son to school or arrange a ride. Now, he has to accompany him to the bus stop down the road.
“You see, now I’m supposed to be working,” he said Friday morning. “I got to take off from my work, tell my boss, ‘Nah, I can’t go today because I got to bring my son to the school.’”
Henry’s mom could wait with her son at the entrance to the apartment complex, but the family doesn’t want her to walk down Chef Menteur with a newborn.
Cristi Rosales-Fajardo is an Einstein parent who has helped families find transportation.
“We just asked for the stop to be right here,” at the entrance of the apartment complex, Rosales-Fajardo said. “Like other schools have stops right here in front of the apartments.”
As they prepared to leave, a school bus pulled off the road at the apartment complex to take a girl to another school.
ReNEW Schools has several bus stops that pick up directly on Chef Menteur, including one a few houses down from Henry’s.
FirstLine Schools’ buses pick up students in the area in front of their apartment complexes or nearby, said Rebekah Cain, the charter group’s director of operations. The maximum distance students travel is half a mile.
Monday, Rosales-Fajardo said Einstein had added another stop along Chef. But it’s still nearly a half mile east on Chef Menteur.
Einstein declined to respond to questions about bus stop locations. A spokeswoman referred us to the school district, which isn’t responsible for charter schools’ bus routes.
Families can be reimbursed for transportation costs
Friday morning, Nelly Matute, an astute 10-year-old, was waiting for the bus with her two brothers at another stop Friday morning. Three stray dogs wrestled in the neutral ground and dodged traffic at the four-way stop.
“I like the bus because I can talk to my friends longer, and I just like it because also the bus driver — she’s very nice,” Matute said.
Matute’s family lives around the corner from the bus stop.
“My mom, she would drive us to school,” Matute said. “But I’m happy now that they gave free buses because now she don’t have to waste her gas or money.”
Under the settlement with the school district, the charter network will reimburse families for transportation costs, up to $50,000 total.
Davida Finger, a professor at Loyola University’s law clinic, said that’s far too low. The law clinic filed an amicus brief in the school district’s lawsuit against Einstein.
Some families paid $50 to $90 for each student, each week, for van service, Finger said.
“If they’re thinking about full reimbursement, it’s only full reimbursement for a very limited number of families,” she said.
Finger and Rosales-Fajardo said several parents have had trouble figuring out when bus service would begin and where their child’s stop would be. Some parents have had to ask for closer stops.
Finger said Rosales-Fajardo, who speaks Spanish, has acted as a go-between for parents who don’t speak English. Even a bus driver called Rosales-Fajardo the other day to ask where to drop off a student.
“Essentially, she’s being utilized, in what should be a school responsibility, to get feedback and structure appropriate stops,” Finger said.
Federal law requires schools to communicate with parents in a language they can understand.
Nelly’s mother Jacky, who was watching her children Friday morning, said she would seek the reimbursement.
“I pay like $130, $140, every week for somebody to bring my kids to school,” she said. That was a big chunk of her $320 weekly pay, so she quit her steady job to drive her kids to school. Now she does translation work when she can.
Bus service is especially important for working families and those without cars, she said.
About 95 percent of students at Einstein’s two elementary schools are economically disadvantaged.
Matute also had to request a closer stop because the first one was 1.4 miles away. Rosales-Fajardo helped organize that, too.
“I think it’s going to get better,” Rosales-Fajardo said. “It’s gotta get better.”
WWNO education reporter Jess Clark contributed to this story.