Abdullah finally hopped off a school shuttle and into his mother’s arms at 5:03 p.m. after sitting on the bus for nearly an hour and a half — a trek that his mother has repeatedly told the Board of Ed is too long for a 5-year-old with special needs.
The mom, Aisha Patel, has repeatedly requested a change in her nonverbal youngest son’s bus routes.
At first, she went to district headquarters before the school year started. Last week, she demanded answers at the Board of Education’s meeting.
A month into the school year the district has yet to adjust the boy’s schedule, leaving him to wait out a 3.5-hour daily round trip, from the family’s condo in Fair Haven Heights to Mauro-Sheridan Interdistrict Magnet School in Amity.
(Update: A few hours after this story was published, the district placed Patel’s son on a new bus route with a 4:15 p.m. drop-off.)
Patel’s difficulty with the bus schedule is an example of the many complaints about the school transportation system that crop up at the start of every school year. As the district has moved away from neighborhood schools to magnets that draw students from across the region, parents routinely run into problems with the buses: stops located too far from home, drivers showing up late, and no supervision onboard.
Parents are asking, “How many first days of school [has the district] had? How many years of school? Then how come this is the same issue every year?” said Nijija-Ife Waters, the president of the Citywide Parent Team (CPT), who had her own problems last year with a bus dropping her son off tardy at school on a near-daily basis.
CPT’s most recent meeting focused on this topic, when nearly 50 moms and dads showed up with transportation concerns. A district employee in charge of busing was in attendance, along with the superintendent. The employee said she resolved all the complaints, except for Patel’s, within less than a week. Parents trying to follow-up with the district, though, said they struggled to get an employee on the phone, either because the line is busy or because no one picks up, according to Waters.
“There’s no accountability in this district. And because there’s no accountability, who cares about fixing something? What are the repercussions when this happens? Who goes back and apologizes to the parents? Who even follows it through?“ Waters said. “You see, with this parent, they should say, ‘Hey, listen, we’re working on this problem. It’s taking a little more time than what we had expected, but please bear with us.’ They don’t, because you don’t have a person in the district” conducting oversight.
“The customer service, across the board, sucks, to be honest with you,” Waters said.
District officials said that they’re charged with a daunting task. Every day, school buses transport 20,000 kids across “hundreds of routes and thousands of miles” branching out into dozens of suburban towns, said Will Clark, the Board of Education’s chief operating officer. That’s all while needing to maintain time-efficient and cost-efficient routes, he said.
At this week’s board meeting, Superintendent Reggie Mayo said the district has made nearly 5,000 changes this year already, largely because of parents who don’t turn their information in on time.
While he said he couldn’t comment on individual cases, Clark wrote in an email, “We work very hard internally and with our contractor as well as with schools and parents to seeks appropriate solutions.”
“As individual issues arise we do our best to work on appropriate resolutions where possible,” Clark stated.
In the meantime, Patel’s son is still scheduled for pick-up at 7:30 a.m., ahead of Mauro-Sheridan’s 9:15 a.m. start; and drop-off at 5:15 p.m. (after the school day’s 3:30 p.m. end. Patel said she worries about what might happen if Abdullah has an accident on the long commute. Because of his special needs, he finished potty-training over the summer, and he can’t speak.
So far, there haven’t been any such incidents, she said. The long commute is so tiring for the youngster that, on most days, he falls asleep either on the ride or on the couch once he’s home, Patel said. “It’s too much for a 5 year old.”
Liking the principal and the school’s STEM-focused curriculum, the family doesn’t want to change schools, said Patel.
Abdullah’s father has begun dropping his son off by car in the morning on the way to his job as a baked goods distributor. But he can’t pick him up in the afternoon, leaving the bus as the only way to get home.
One solution Patel has offered is putting her youngest on the quicker bus that Abdullah’s three older brothers all take. That one arrives at 8:35 a.m. and returns at 4:30 p.m. Patel said she’d feel that her son was “safer” on that bus, knowing that his older siblings would “watch out for him.”
Generally, that’s how the district likes to map out the routes as well. But special circumstances, like special education requirements or behavioral issues, may require “unique planning” that separates siblings, Clark said.
According to Patel, the district promised her that it would have a solution sometime this week. She said she won’t be surprised if nothing changes.
“It’s going to be a month on Oct. 6,” this Friday, since she first lodged her concerns, Patel said. “It’s frustrating.”