City transportation problems stall transfers to better schools

Shortage of bus drivers blamed

children are left behind at inferior schools

October 23, 2003|By Reginald Fields | Reginald Fields,SUN STAFF

Dominique Yarbor has the right to attend a better school, according to federal law, but the yellow bus never came to carry her there. So the fifth-grader is walking again to the neighborhood school that the state considers to be failing.

"I called the school's transportation unit and I got the runaround," said Towanda Yarbor, who had hoped to send her daughter to Hampstead Hill Elementary in East Baltimore. "They said they were scheduled to pick her up but they didn't have enough buses."

Dominique, who is attending Holabird Elementary close to Dundalk, is one of hundreds of city school children denied one of the promised benefits of the No Child Left Behind Act: the right to transfer from an academically poor public school to a higher achieving one at the school district's expense.

Parents of 495 children applied last summer for 301 spots available at 12 higher-performing schools. But only 128 of those places were filled when the school year began in August. And that number has since dropped to about 100 because the school system couldn't provide dependable transportation.

Now the district, still working out the busing troubles, is giving parents another chance at better schools.

The families had until last Friday to re-apply and will be notified by tomorrow whether they get their request. The transfers would take effect immediately.

But filling those positions just means more students for the district to transport and, without the busing issue fully resolved, it likely means more problems meeting the spirit of No Child Left Behind.

"We're working it out, I think we are resolving it," said Baltimore schools official Deborah Banks, sounding more hopeful than assured. She blamed the problem on a lack of bus drivers at the start of the school year.

Even those transfer students who are in new schools this fall and relying on district transportation might arrive up to an hour late for school, if at all, and wait just as long in the afternoon for a ride home.

"We had some that didn't receive any transportation at all for a couple weeks," said Banks, whose department assists at-risk students and pays for the additional expense of transporting transfer students.

The district's bus troubles have been just as stressful for some principals at schools with transfer students. They've found themselves having to work out travel for their students.

Unpredictable buses

"Some days they are on the bus, and some days they are not," said Mary Winterling, principal at Bentalou Elementary School.

"I have to work with the parents, and we're grateful to the parents for getting the students here. And we try to make other arrangements with cab service to get the other children here."

Of Bentalou's 20 transfer students this year, transportation for three is still very much day-to-day, Winterling said.

Bentalou still has 51 spots available.

Winterling said several parents, upset with the inconsistent transportation, elected to send their children back to the neighborhood school in walking distance that they tried to leave.

Poor planning

Bernice Whelchel, principal at City Springs Elementary School, blames the school system for poor planning.

"They allowed the parents to transfer from all over the city but didn't give the parents information on how to get their children to the school," Whelchel said, adding that some parents had letters informing them their children would go to City Springs before the principal knew.

Despite the uneven busing, Whelchel said she hasn't lost any students who decided to go back to their zone school. City Springs still has 28 seats available.

Banks said the problem was complicated by the district's struggles to identify how many spots and at what grade levels they were available in schools accepting transfer students.

For example, a school might have room for five third-graders but no room at any other grade level. Some of those spaces could not be determined until school started.

It could have been worse. Under No Child, more than 27,000 students -- slightly less than a third of the district's enrollment -- were eligible to transfer to other schools, but the families of only 495 of them sought a transfer.

Banks added that while some parents have been able to drive their children to and from their new school, others have told the district they withdrew from the transfer option because they could not afford to wait for the district to correct the problem.

Fixed income, no car

That was the case for the Yarbors, a family of five living on a fixed income and without an automobile.

Towanda Yarbor said Dominique is a good student and her mother heard that Hampstead Hill, in a neighborhood a few miles north, was a better school for her.

The family spent $3.50 a day, round trip, to send Dominique to Hampstead Hill on a transit bus until they couldn't afford it anymore. Two weeks into the school year, Dominique was back at Holabird.

"I had to take money out of my pocket every day and I shouldn't [have] had to," Yarbor said. "It got to be too much."

Dominique's parents also did not re-apply to get her re-enrolled in Hampstead Hill, worried that the district still had not solved its problems.

"I was very disappointed by what happened and I didn't want to put her through that again," said the mother, adding that Dominique waited two hours at home on the first day of school for a bus that never came.

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