Malonda Mines said she woke her 6-year-old daughter before the sun rose, making sure she was dressed in her new uniform by the time the school bus was scheduled to arrive on the first day of classes.
But the city school bus never showed Aug. 20. And Mines had another child to send off, so the mother of three, who doesn’t own a car, couldn’t transport her youngest child herself.
The young girl missed her first day of first grade.
“She was upset because she wanted to see her cousin in school,” Mines said. “I don’t know what’s going on with transportation; one minute, they’re okay, the next minute, they’re not doing their job.”
About 3,000 special-education students in the District rely on city-funded buses to take them to and from school each day. The other 95,000 D.C. traditional public and charter school students use public transportation, walk or have an adult take them to school.
But the process to transport these 3,000 students is logistically complicated — a process that parents say is often unreliable at the start of the year. And this year, they said, is no different.
Parents said the buses have either failed to show up, arrived late or brought their children home later than anticipated in the first days of school. They say bus delays typically persist throughout the academic year, resulting in their children showing up tardy to school.
“I don’t understand why this is so complicated,” said Traci Brown, who learned on the first day of school that the bus wasn’t scheduled to pick up her 5-year-old.
The Office of the State Superintendent of Education, the D.C. agency responsible for bus transportation, acknowledged that there are hiccups at the beginning of the year but said this year has been smoother than usual.
The agency employs more than 1,200 bus drivers and attendants, who supervise children who need extra assistance on the bus. Each bus has about six children, picking up the students in front of their homes and transporting them to more than 200 schools. Students with special needs who use city funds to attend schools in Maryland and Virginia also use the buses. A single bus often goes to multiple schools.
The superintendent’s office works with schools to determine eligibility for the bus and to ensure that it has the proper address on file for each student. Then the agency uses a computer program to coordinate the most efficient routes.
Brown said she was told that the school system didn’t provide the superintendent’s office with the proper paperwork for her daughter by the deadline.
“As a parent, we don’t care about division of labor,” she said. “I bet their kids were picked up.”
The superintendent’s office makes adjustments to the routes based on students’ needs. If students, for example, spend some nights at one parent’s house and the other nights at another’s, the buses will pick them up at the appropriate parent’s home. Buses will pick up some students later if they require medication to be administered in the morning by a parent. They also are supposed to accommodate for after-school activities.
Between Aug. 20 and Aug. 28 — the first week of school for most District students — the superintendent’s office received 252 requests to make changes to its bus routes. About 100 of those were changes in students’ addresses, and 84 were switches in the schools the students were attending. The remainder of the requests were alterations to students’ morning-pickup and afternoon-drop-off details, according to Fred Lewis, an agency spokesman. During the first week of school, Lewis said, the agency received 214 new requests to use the school buses for D.C. special-education students.
“Transporting more than 3,000 students more than 25,000 miles daily, on more than 500 routes to over 200 public and nonpublic schools throughout D.C., Maryland, and Virginia is a complicated operation that [the superintendent’s office] takes very seriously,” Lewis wrote in an email.
Lewis said if troubles arise with the buses in the first weeks, a school can coordinate private transportation for eligible students and the city will reimburse them.
Candice Tolliver-Burns, a spokeswoman for Friendship Public Charter — the charter network that runs the school of the 6-year-old who missed her first day — said that the charter views transportation for the first week of school as a “transitional period” and that the city has been improving its services. She said 17 of the 83 students who qualify to use the school buses at the Friendship schools in D.C. received transportation services during the first week of school.
“It is disruptive to families when transportation isn’t available as expected,” Tolliver-Burns wrote in an email. “We’ve actually seen improvements with [the office of the superintendent’s] transportation services over the last few years.”
Maria Blaeuer, director of programs and outreach at Advocates for Justice and Education — a D.C. nonprofit organization that works with special-needs students to get them the services they require — said troubles with city transportation have made for a challenging start to the school year for many families.
But she said the superintendent’s office is attempting to improve the services, meeting with her organization and others to address concerns.
“Transportation continues to be an ongoing challenge for students in the District of Columbia, creating hardships for families and preventing students from accessing their education,” Blaeuer wrote in an email.
The District has long struggled to provide special-education students with transportation.
In 1995, parents filed a class-action suit alleging that the city had failed to provide reliable transportation for students with disabilities. There were not enough bus drivers and attendants, nor enough buses. Students were arriving late to school more than two-thirds of the time.
The suit led to federal oversight of the system. After 17 years, a federal judge agreed in 2012 to allow the District to regain control of its special-education school buses.
Tamiesha Lawrence has three children who rely on the school buses for transportation. She filed a complaint against the city last month after the buses dropped off three of her sons at the wrong location multiple times during the last academic year — leaving them unattended at a closed recreation center. The superintendent’s office said it could not comment on pending litigation.
Lawrence said she has no choice but to rely on the buses again this academic year. She said it’s the only way she can ensure that all four of her children — who attend three different schools — can get to their classes.
She said the bus has picked up her children on time this year but dropped them off at home about an hour late.
“It’s a helpless situation. That’s what it feels like,” she said. “It’s a bad feeling to feel like you have to deal with someone’s negligence to get what you need.”