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Bus transfers lead to long rides for some students

Students who elect school choice have another lesson to learn when it comes to getting there

POSTED: September 18, 2008 5:01 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA/The Times

Doug Bennett, a physical education teacher at Gainesville Exploration Academy, directs transfer students onto the appropriate bus Thursday afternoon.

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Schools of choice may allow parents the power to pick, yet kids being shuttled to schools across Gainesville or to the other end of South Hall County may be whining to bus drivers, "Are we there yet?"

Just this year, Hall County schools opened the World Language Academy, the system's first school of choice that accepts students countywide regardless of their home district. The World Language Academy joins the ranks of the entire Gainesville school system, which has offered school choice and bus transportation for all five of its elementary schools since 2003, according to Gainesville schools transportation director Jerry Castleberry.

But with rides home from city schools requiring bus transfers and topping about 50 minutes, and rides home from the World Language Academy to seven elementary school districts topping more than an hour and a half, some parents are wondering if school officials can do more to make getting to and from school more cost efficient and less stressful for students.

Castleberry and Jewel Armour, executive director of transportation for the Hall County school system, said the current system is the best the schools can provide without buying more buses. In a school year that started with state budget cuts that are causing school board members to keep fiscal responsibility high on their priority lists, adding to the city system's fleet of 40 buses and to the county system's fleet of 214 buses is not a viable option.

On Thursday, DeKalb County school officials said they were considering halting a decades-old practice of busing students to campuses far from their neighborhood. The move could save $5.9 million a year for the 100,000-student district if the school board adopts the policy in January. About 5,600 students would likely be affected, mostly students who are enrolled at magnet schools, charter schools and academic theme schools, as well as those who transferred from lower-performing campuses under federal No Child Left Behind laws.

Castleberry said Gainesville schools plan to spend about $300,000 this year on diesel fuel for buses, and Armour said the county system has budgeted $2.4 million for fuel expenses. Both transportation directors said cutting out transportation for schools of choice would not equate to significant savings.

"There'd be some savings with neighborhood schools, but you'd still have to go to all the schools anyway, so it's not a big saving," Castleberry said.

Both directors said they were unable to define an amount the school systems could stand to save if they cut out school choice bus services.

Transfers cause parents worry
While most city school parents support the districtwide transportation, some parents said they're just looking for some common sense.

Eddie Hopwood, who lives in Amberleigh subdivision off Poplar Springs Road, said he enrolled his 5-year-old son, Jacob, into Chicopee Woods Elementary School's kindergarten program in the spring. But three weeks into the school year, Hopwood said a school counselor informed his wife that Jacob should have been enrolled into the city school system since Gainesville recently annexed the subdivision.

To make the situation more difficult, Gainesville Exploratory Academy, Jacob's neighborhood school, was full. He then was enrolled at Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy.

Every day, Jacob meets the bus at 6:45 a.m., arrives at Gainesville Exploration Academy at about 7:12 a.m., gets off that bus and then boards one of the two buses bound for Enota Academy. Castleberry said those buses typically arrive at the Enota school at about 7:21 a.m.

In the afternoons, Jacob leaves the Enota school at about 2:25 p.m. and gets home by about 3:15, his father said.
"It's crazy to have to send somebody to a school 15 miles away. I can see the athletic fields of Johnson High School from my backyard," Eddie Hopwood said.

Although pleased with Enota Academy, Hopwood said he's concerned about his son making the bus transfers at Gainesville Exploratory Academy every morning and afternoon.

"It was kind of a shock to him at first," Hopwood said. "My worst fear is that they get him on the wrong bus or don't get him on the bus and he doesn't know what to do. He's only 5 years old."

Patricia McCoy, a parent of a 9-year-old daughter who attends Enota, said that's why she fights traffic each school day to drop her daughter off and pick her up. Initially zoned for New Holland Core Knowledge Academy, if McCoy's daughter rode the bus, she would have to make a transfer.

"I'm not going to say I won't take advantage of it at some point, I just don't have to right now, so I don't," McCoy said.

Castleberry said without purchasing more buses, making transfers at the five elementary schools is the most efficient solution to transporting children in the district of choice.

"To have schools of choice, this is about the only way it can work," he said.

A visit to Gainesville Elementary in the afternoon shows multiple teachers helping students get on the correct buses. Sporting color-coded name tags - pink for Gainesville Exploratory Academy and green for Fair Street International Baccalaureate World School, for example - students pile into buses and are swept away, while another group arrives in the bus parking lot for the second time that day. The transfer students sit on the covered sidewalk while awaiting the bus that takes them home.

Priscilla Collins, principal of Gainesville Exploration Academy, said the color-coded name tags help teachers get students on the right bus. As for the kids, she said, they're pretty flexible about it.

"Once children get used to a routine, it's just routine," Collins said. "It takes them about a week to get them where they're not confused. ... It's quick. The buses are in the same slots every morning, so the children know where to go."

As for Hopwood's fears of little Jacob missing the bus or embarking on the wrong one, Castleberry said it does happen, but they have a fix for that.

"It happens, and it happens several times a week, but it's never on a large scale. It's usually only one or two kids," Castleberry said as he received a call notifying him a student missed his bus.

"See, he'll get home late," he said. "We'll carry him to the middle school and he'll ride home with the middle schoolers and the high schoolers on the bus that rides to his area."

Dyer said the city is still tweaking the bus routes in newly annexed subdivisions, and is considering combining trips for elementary, and then middle and high school students, into one.

County school of choice must serve large areas
At the World Language Academy, principal David Moody said the county school system allows any county elementary student to attend the dual-language academy. But transportation is provided only to students zoned to attend Chicopee Woods, Lyman Hall, Jones, Martin Spout Springs, Friendship or Chestnut Mountain elementary schools.

While the morning routine for World Language Academy bus riders is similar to that of the city school system and takes roughly an hour to get to school for the longest rider, the trip home is a different story.

"The afternoons are longer, unfortunately," Moody said. "It can be a long day ... but I think it's a priceless opportunity."

With the World Language Academy letting out at 3:20 p.m., rather than at 2:20 p.m. like most Hall County elementary schools, WLA students board buses that stop by their neighborhood school to drop off students participating in the YMCA afterschool program.

Students who live between the academy and their home school are dropped off en route, but the remainder of students sit on the bus as the YMCA students disembark, and then sit through the rest of the route that winds through their entire district.

"Now those routes can take some time," Moody said. "That's the frustration, but there's nothing we can do. ... The Friendship district is definitely big. ... A bus could leave from here near Braselton and drive all the way toward Buford.

"I think parents are realizing we're doing the best we can do. We're serving a large area," he said.

Moody said parents are adapting to the bus changes and many are carpooling, as evidenced by the line of vehicles at the school morning and afternoon. He said others are enrolling their children in the YMCA afterschool program that allows parents to leave their children at school until 6 p.m.

Armour said the transportation department continues to try to set routes so that no child rides the bus more than an hour.

"We let parents know when they signed up for the WLA to expect a little longer ride," Armour said. "The reason the routes are longer is because we're covering a whole district with one bus."

As for possible fuel shortages due to Hurricane Ike, the city and county school systems are already prepared for this week.

Dyer said at its Monday night meeting the Gainesville school board may consider eliminating bus services for afterschool activities in the upcoming week. Armour said with five fuel tanks at various county school locations, county school buses likely will be in good shape for at least the next three weeks.



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