2011-12-16 / Columnists

East End Matters

To The DOE: Fix Your Pupil Transportation System
Commentary By Miriam Rosenberg

What is the Office of Pupil Transportation and why do they constantly make life miserable for students and parents? Well quickly, the OPT is the arm of the Department of Education that oversees school bus service for more than 160,000 city public school children each day. It is supposed to be a system that – according to a report by the Public Advocate’s office – is “safe, reliable, and easy to navigate.” Yet, it does not always meet those criteria, especially for special education children.

This fall Public Advocate Bill de Blasio released a study that was critical of public school transportation. In it he said, “For [special education children] and their families the bus system can be a physically and emotionally draining part of daily life, with many parents convinced that conditions on the bus and hours of travel have a direct impact on their child’s ability to learn.”

My family and I didn’t need de Blasio’s report to know this. Since September we have lived it. My niece has gone through several bus routes since the fall. As Rockaway residents, if our special needs child is experiencing these problems so are the special needs children who live around us. Actually, the bus that picks up my niece stops several times within a block of our home. Six times this year OPT has changed the bus that picks her up. The last time was twice in one day. To be fair, three of those times she was returned to the bus she started with in September. Yet each time she was changed from that bus her wake-up and leaving-for-school times became earlier and she arrived home later.

In Spring 2011 in a survey of parents of children with disabilities, de Balsio found that many special needs students commuted between an hour and an hour and a half each way on the bus and that “a substantial number of children arrive at school late.” The report also says that “bus companies do not always notify school staff and parents when there is a delay on the route.”

And while delays have to be expected, many parents pointed to “consistent, erratic bus pickups and drop-offs.” This past September 27, the DOE posted a one day total of 398 bus delays, with 76 percent being on special education routes.

De Blasio’s report, “Doing Less With More: How School Transportation Is Failing Students and Taxpayers,” points out that despite annual increases to pupil transportation, the quality of service has not gotten better.

These are not new problems. After a 2006 survey of parents with children in District 75 (that oversees special education students), then-Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum wrote that the “Department of Education fails to provide many children with special needs reliable transportation.” Her report noted “department and bus company responsiveness, consistently irregular pick up times, and concerns over bus safety.”

Five years later the current public advocate is still seeking to make changes. De Blasio’s recommendations include reducing the maximum time limit a student with disabilities can be on the bus from 90 to 60 minutes within borough and 115 to 90 minutes outside of borough; stopping no bid bus contracts and putting them out to an RFP process; the DOE should notify parents of delays exceeding 15 minutes and simplify lines of communication so parents have one contact, not several, for questions or complaints; and there should be dry runs on all bus routes before the first day of school or when a route is restructured.

Let me add that the number of times OPT can switch routes on a child should also be restricted and a better line of communication with parents established. Right now the OPT seems to feel it can do what it wants and when it wants.

Anyone would tell you that constant change of any kind does not help a child succeed in school.

De Blasio recommends beginning the implementation of his recommendations on special education bus routes.

“These recommendations will provide cost savings for the city and improved services for the students who use bus transportation, as well as their parents,” de Blasio said.

It is hard enough to get children out in the morning, much less special needs ones, without worrying about their transportation. Chancellor Walcott, my five-year old niece and the other children who ride the school buses in the city hope you are listening.

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