Ivonne Porras has two children attending different schools on Denver’s West High School campus. She is an involved parent who wants the best possible educational opportunities for her family.

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Rocio Salcedo speaks to Nicole Portee, director of transportation, left, about improving school transportation at the West High campus at a November meeting. <em>Photo courtesy of Padres & Jovenes Unidos</em>

But she says she can’t worry too much about academics until she is certain her children have safe access to their schools.

In some communities, safe rides in yellow buses or short walks on tree-lined sidewalks are a given. But that is not the case for all families at West.

Parents say buses are often late, which means students may not have time to eat breakfast at school, or over-crowded with students sitting in the aisles. They say fights break out and that the district doesn’t always communicate well about things like altered routes. The latter situation resulted in parents having no idea where their children were one day.

Now, Porras and other families are working with Padres & Jovenes Unidos to expand transportation options at West. Ideally they’d like to see a Success Express shuttle open for business in their community by 2014.

Everyone wants Success Express

The Success Express is a bus system in Far Northeast and Near Northeast Denver that uses a fleet of DPS buses to ensure that all students have a ride to and from school every day. The Success Express runs for three hours each morning and four hours every evening. The buses also have two adults on them, the driver and a paraprofessional, to make sure behavioral issues don’t get out of control.

“The main goal is to see the West campus succeed,” said Sheila Keller, an organizer with Padres Unidos who’s working with families at West. “We want these students to be prepared for college and have an equal shake at life. If you can’t get there, you can’t get what they’re offering.”

Keller said when she started meeting with parents as part of a bigger push to improve the academic preparation of low-income students and youth of color in their middle school years, one issue quickly bubbled to the top of parents’ list.

“Transportation came up immediately, and as a barrier to the success at the school,” Keller said.

For months, parents and representatives from Padres and the new West Generation Academy, which enrolled students in sixth, eighth and ninth grades this year, and West Leadership Academy, which has sixth- and ninth-graders this year, have been meeting with district transportation officials  to address parent concerns. Both schools will ultimately serve grades 6-12. The district has informally agreed to some of the parents’ suggestions to go into effect next year, but not others, Keller said.

Until agreements are formalized, district officials declined to discuss changes that are coming.

“We’re looking at different ways to increase services to students going to the West campus,” DPS spokesperson Dave Nachtweih said last week. “What that exactly looks like we don’t know yet.”

Final plans on hold due to changes at West

Nachtweih said plans can’t be finalized until choice numbers are in and the district knows exactly how many students will be attending the West campus next year and how many will need busing. Meanwhile, the Leadership Academy is making significant scheduling changes, which will also affect bus routes and schedules, he said.

The biggest change parents want? Use of yellow school buses for some high school students – especially freshman – instead of having students take RTD city buses.

Some high-schoolers now have to use three transfers to get to school and spend at least 45 minutes to an hour on a bus each way.

“The RTD system doesn’t string together in way that is time effective,” Keller said.

What this means is that younger siblings often get home before the older siblings who are charged with watching them, she added.

“That’s a lot of time and insecurity for the students,” Porras said through a translator. “A lot of the moms don’t want to put kids on RTD because of safety. Parents are saying it’s better not to come to West if you have to put them on RTD. They might send (their child) to another school even though it’s not a better school.”

Yellow buses for high school students?

Parents and school leaders are still working on opening up seats for at least ninth- and 10th –graders on the yellow buses. But it’s not clear that will happen.

However, it does look like larger buses may be used at West next year, providing seven to 10 more seats, giving students more space and – parent and organizers hope – resulting in fewer conflicts breaking out due to overcrowding.

Exhaust from diesel school buses poses a threat to millions of schoolchildren nationwide.
<em>EdNews</em> file photo

And, it looks like school leaders are open to changing the start times of the schools, so that the buses would make two morning rotations through the feeder neighborhoods. This would allow students to board buses earlier if they needed or wanted to get to school earlier, Keller said.

Ditto at the end of the school day. Two rotations of buses home would create a mini-shuttle system allowing students who stayed later for tutoring or activities to take a bus home. Again, nothing has been finalized.

But Keller also said work is underway to raise money to launch an after-school activities bus at West, which would guarantee transportation for students leaving school at a later hour.

Silvia Urbina’s son is a sixth-grader at West Leadership Academy. She too worries about her child taking public transportation.

“With everything happening with students we’ve seen in the news, I am worried our kids could get attacked or something on the bus,” Urbina said through a translator.

Urbina said she signed her son up for the Leadership Academy, a College Board school that give placement priority to students who live in the West shared boundary, to give him a shot at a successful life.

“I am very excited as a mother about these new schools here for my son… and the opportunity for him to get to university,” Urbina said. “But transportation has been a barrier to my son to get here and I even have friends who want to come here and that would be a barrier.”