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October 1, 2010 > No easy rides for students

No easy rides for students

By Alyson Whitaker

A decade ago, figuring out how to get your child to school was easy - students either walked or biked in neighborhood groups to and from school, or hopped on a yellow bus. Numerous bus routes enabled students to literally step out their front door and onto a bus. Each elementary, middle, and high school had multiple routes, buses, and drivers to deliver students safely and efficiently to school campuses.

Fast forward to 2010 and the story is a much different one. Transportation reductions are the latest in a lengthening list of measures taken by school districts because of state budget cuts to education. Many schools have done away with the yellow bus system altogether due to the high operational costs and decreased ridership. For those schools who still utilize the traditional buses, there are no free rides. Families must pay upwards of $250 a year per child.

AC Transit has joined forces with many local districts, including Fremont Unified, Hayward Unified, and Newark Unified, to provide supplemental transportation options for those who still need a ride to school. But this system is not without challenges. Primarily offered to service middle and high school students, service is not available for elementary-aged children. Cuts to transportation agencies have also eliminated "bus monitors" who used to ride with students to provide supervision and monitor behavior on the bus. While student fares are discounted over what the general public must pay, there is still a financial hardship placed on many families who rely on the service to get their children to and from school.

It can also be difficult to estimate the demand for AC Transit service to schools. During the first weeks of the school year, parents at American High School in Fremont complained about reduced routes and not enough seats for students. Fremont School Board President Lara York and AC Transit Director Jeff Davis worked together responding to complaints. Longer buses were put on the heaviest load routes, hopefully eliminating the seat shortage. Routes will be evaluated periodically, and adjustments made as necessary.

New Haven School District has also struggled with the transportation cuts. Rick LaPlante oversees public relations for the district. "While we've tried to keep the devastating cuts as far away from the classroom as possible, it's reached the point where there's no more fat to trim. We're down to the muscle." Two years ago, the district cut out high school transportation, as a city bus route runs right in front of the school. But it's much more difficult for the students in grades K-8. This year, the district cut transportation for grades K-5, just providing bus service to the middle school students who live the farthest away. In general, seven percent of children in the district were bus riders, and in many cases, those students came from less fortunate families. The cuts are impacting the families who can least afford it.

However, there have been instances of generosity. Last year, an elementary school parent in the district was moved by stories told by families for whom it was difficult to get their children to school. The parent donated her daughter's bus pass, which was used for the rest of the year by a middle school student from a disadvantaged family. And this year, even as state budget cuts eliminated the elementary transportation, that same parent offered to buy a pass for another student. (If you live in the New Haven School District, and would like to donate a bus pass, contact Rick LaPlante at (510) 476-2610, or rlaplante@nhusd.k12.ca.us.)

The New Haven district has joined forces with Alameda County Safe Routes To School, an organization aiming to help ensure safe transport for students to and from school. The group comes into schools, organizing parent volunteers. They train students on bicycle safety, in some instances even providing free helmets. "Walking school buses" are another option, where a group of students with a designated parent volunteer walk together safely to school. The benefits of this are two-fold-a safe and environmentally-friendly alternative to buses and driving, and it also provides increased physical activity for kids to help combat the childhood obesity epidemic.

Organizing neighborhood carpools is another solution with ever-increasing popularity. It's better for the environment, as well as school traffic, to have one SUV with four kids onboard, than four SUVs with one child each.

There are no easy answers. Class sizes are rapidly increasing. "Extra" programs like art, music, PE, and others have been reduced or eliminated. Districts are forced to make tough decisions about what programs to cut next, and unfortunately for many, transportation is at the top of the list.

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