The Other 60 Percent

Future cloudy for reducing emissions

More than 2,000 aging Colorado school buses have been retrofitted over the past eight years to limit diesel exhaust emissions, which are known to worsen asthma and other lung ailments, especially in children.

At up to $175,000 per bus, on average, cash-strapped school districts have been slow to replace aging buses with newer, less-polluting models.
At up to $175,000 per bus, cash-strapped school districts have been slow to replace aging buses with newer, less-polluting models.

But recently announced federal budget cutbacks have slashed spending for the Environmental Protection Program’s Clean Diesel Program, which pays for the retrofits.

And for every Colorado school bus that has been retrofitted so far, officials estimate there’s at least one more that hasn’t been but ought to be.

Should the federal funding not be restored, officials aren’t sure what will become of state plans to retrofit the remaining buses. It’s possible that other funding sources could be found but there are no guarantees.

“We’ll be retrofitting buses at least through Sept. 30 and probably beyond,” said Lisa Silva, air quality planner for the Air Pollution Control Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and manager of the Clean Diesel Program for the state.

“We’ve applied for another grant, which could go through 2012. We just have to wait and see what happens after this fiscal year.”

‘Clean Diesel’ retrofitted 2,000 buses

The state-run Clean Diesel Program, launched in 2006, targets school districts outside the metro area. It has retrofitted about 1,000 buses in Pueblo, El Paso, Garfield, Rio Blanco and Weld counties, at a cost of about $3.4 million.

A threat to children
“Students could be breathing this in twice a day, five days a week, nine months a year for 12 years.”
— Greg Davis, EPA

In Denver and its suburbs, a similar program is administered through the Regional Air Quality Council. Launched in 2003, RAQC has retrofitted about 1,000 buses in the seven-county metro area, at a cost of about $3.5 million.

Later this year, buses in Gunnison, Cotopaxi, Dolores Re-2 and Bayfield school districts are due for retrofits but at least a dozen other school districts have requested assistance. Silva estimates there may be 3,000 buses still running on Colorado roads that are needlessly belching toxins into the air – and likely into the lungs of their passengers.

“Researchers at National Jewish tell us they see a lot more asthma attacks that are very likely induced by school bus rides on diesel school buses that are not retrofitted,” Silva said. “That’s an immediate effect. Long-term, there have been studies that show exposure to mobile source air toxins can do permanent damage to the lungs by the time a child is 18.”

Rural riders particularly at risk

The problem is particularly acute in the state’s rural areas, where students may spend upwards of two to three hours a day on board buses. That doesn’t count time spent traveling to and from sporting events, which can add additional hours of bus travel.

Buses by the numbers
  • Nationwide, an estimated 24 million children ride school buses every day.
  • Almost 400,000 diesel school buses are in use – their average age is 10 years old.
  • More than 75,000 buses have been on the road since before 1990.
  • 20-year-old buses are estimated to emit six times the number of toxic particles as buses built before 2004 – and as much as 60 times more than buses built since 2007.
  • But at a cost of $125,000 to $175,000 per bus, school districts are slow to replace old buses with new ones.

The emissions seep in through the doors opening and closing at stops, but also come in from under the hood. The exposure to these toxins is greatest inside the school buses, but non-riders can be exposed while waiting with children at bus stops or stopping behind an idling bus.

Children are at greater risk than adults because their lungs are smaller and because their respiration rate is faster. While adults average 12 to18 breaths per minute, young children may inhale 20 to 40 times per minute. And with each breath they could be inhaling carbon, formaldehyde, and other toxic chemicals found in diesel exhaust fumes.

“Students could be breathing this in twice a day, five days a week, nine months a year for 12 years,” said Greg Davis, Mobile Sources Program Manager for the EPA in Denver, which oversees the Clean Diesel grants. “With each $1 you put into reducing pollutants, you get more than $1 back in reduced health care costs.”

Buses built before 2007 – the year emission control devices became standard on new buses – are eligible for the retrofits, which involve up to three pieces of equipment:

  • Diesel oxidation catalysts, which replace the existing bus mufflers and which decrease tailpipe emissions by 50 percent for hydrocarbons and 20 percent of particulate matter.
  • Crankcase filtration units, which collect burnt oil particles and other emissions that sweep in from under the hood, and reduce them by 95 percent.
  • Engine pre-heaters, small motors that reduce idling by reducing the time buses need to warm up in the morning. Pre-heaters can save 1 gallon per bus per day of diesel fuel.

The cost to retrofit a bus with all three pieces of equipment averages about $3,500, though not all buses have received all three.

Metro districts further along than rest of state

In the Denver metro area, nearly all eligible buses have been retrofitted to reduce tailpipe emissions and many have been fitted with the engine pre-heaters. But fewer have received the crankcase filtration units.

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Luke Howe-Kerr, a student at Pueblo's Cedar Ridge Elementary School, watches while technician John Schmidt works to retrofit a Pueblo District 70 school bus. EPA photo.

“Done is relative,” said Steve McCannon, mobile sources program manager for RAQC. “The work will never be done. But we’ve definitely made more progress in the metro area than in the rest of the state.”

He said a lot of metro area school districts have also moved to install GPS systems on their buses. His office has provided 350 of those.

“The benefits to GPS are great. The first piece is knowing where the buses are. We can tell what buses are out there and not moving. We can see if a bus driver is wasting money just sitting in a parking lot. We can also do route optimization,” McCannon said.

The CDPHE and RAQC programs have excelled at getting federal funds, particularly federal stimulus dollars, to pay for these programs. But in February, President Obama’s proposed budget eliminated funding for the Clean Diesel Program, which has proven hugely popular and has bipartisan support.

Nationwide, an estimated 24 million children ride school buses every day and almost 400,000 diesel school buses are in use. Their average age is 10 years old, and more than 75,000 have been on the road since before 1990. Twenty-year-old buses are estimated to emit six times the number of toxic particles that buses built since 2004 emit, and as much as 60 times more than buses built since 2007. But at a cost of $125,000 to $175,000 per bus, on average, cash-strapped school districts are slow to replace old buses with new ones.

That’s why the retrofitting program has been so popular: Relatively speaking, it’s an expensive way to dramatically curb emissions without buying a whole new bus.

“This seems like kind of a no-brainer,” said Lauri Smock, transportation coordinator for the Gunnison Watershed School District, which has been waiting for two years for the state to retrofit its 19 buses.

“We’ve been trying, unless it’s stupid cold, to turn our buses off when they get to the schools and not keep them idling, because schools say they know when buses pull up because they can smell the fumes. The other thing is, in the winter we have our buses plugged in all the time,” she said.

“Those are big engines that have to stay warm. We’re using a lot of money on electricity keeping the buses warm so they’ll start when it’s 20 below outside. But with the pre-heater, it’s timed, it will come on a couple of hours before the driver gets there in the morning and the driver won’t have to plug the bus in, so it will cost us less. It will be just a wonderful program for us.”

GPS tracking touted for bus use

In the Adams County Five Star School District, all 160 buses are now equipped with the latest emissions equipment.

For more information

Transportation director David Anderson said that district is exploring all the ways in which even fancier bells and whistles – like GPS – can be used to curb pollution and boost fuel efficiency.

“GPS has been an amazing tool,” Anderson said. “We know where every bus is at a given moment. I can tell you how long the engine has been running, how long it’s been idling. I never thought it would be as wonderful as it is. At my fingertips, I get instant reports if a vehicle has been idling more than 10 minutes. Think how much fuel that can save.”

Cost to install GPS is $600 per bus. Anderson said he recouped the cost within the first year.

Last year, the district also installed card readers on all its buses, which automatically track when individual students get on and get off. That information helps district officials keep track of ridership, and lets them reconfigure bus routes to avoid empty seats and increase fuel economy.

It also is a student safety tool.

“I don’t think a day goes by when we don’t have a lost elementary kid,” Anderson said. “They get on the wrong bus or get off at the wrong stop. The little ones get easily disoriented. Now, if a first-grader gets lost, I can tell he got off at 1st and Main at 3:20. In the past, it was just a guess. Now I have true documentation that’s instantaneous.”

raising the curtain

Aurora high school students started rehearsing a musical about an earlier time — and discovered ‘harsh truths’ about today

Ebony Nash, left, sings during a rehearsal of Ragtime at Hinkley High School. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Nine weeks ago, more than 50 theater and choir students at Aurora’s Hinkley High School came together to begin work on a musical set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York.

At first, the kids did what high school students often do — cluster into familiar cliques, or self-segregate by race. Then the students started immersing themselves in the material.

The musical, “Ragtime,” intertwines the stories of a white family, a Jewish immigrant family and an African-American couple to spotlight differences and commonalities in the American experience.

At the urging of their teachers and directors, the Hinkley students began to use the plot and characters to examine their own actions, prejudice and biases. About 92 percent of Hinkley’s more than 2,100 students are students of color, the vast majority of them Latino.

The cliques and segregation slipped away. The production began taking shape.

“Ragtime” gets its Hinkley High School debut on Thursday and will be performed again on Friday and Saturday.

Chalkbeat sat down with a group of students involved in the production as they were in final preparations to learn about what their experience had taught them. The following is a portion of that conversation, slightly condensed and rearranged for clarity:

Janelle Douglas, a 17-year-old senior who portrays a friend of one of the story’s main characters, said the first time she saw and read through Ragtime, “it was intense.” She often cries as she rehearses her solo, sung during a funeral.

DOUGLAS: “I thought, this is powerful. This is overwhelming. This is amazing.”

Pamela Arzate, 17, plays the role of Evelyn Nesbit, a real model and actress who is incorporated into the fictional story and accused of being shallow.

ARZATE: “It’s very eye-opening because you look at it and it’s just a simple musical, but if you take a step back and go to the real world, it’s the exact same thing that’s going on today.”

Hodaly Sotelo, 17, plays the role of Mother, a woman whose attitudes toward her identity as a wife and woman evolve throughout the story.

SOTELO: “It reminds me of when I was younger and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re over all that racism.’ But now, I look back and I think, what the heck? This stuff is still going on and we thought it was way over.”

Brianna Mauricio-Perez, 17, is one of two student directors.

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “It talks about all of the harsh truths that no one wants to talk about.”

DOUGLAS: “I think it’s safe to say it shows the true colors of our history.”

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “Even within our cast we did have to have a talk about how we were so separated because we were at the very beginning. Everyone was in their little groups and with their friends. You just want to keep to yourself.”

DOUGLAS: “It was literally ‘Ragtime.’”

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “We had a big talk with everybody. Things have gotten so much better. By the end of Act Two, we were all mixed up.”

Brenda Castellanos, 17, plays the role of Emma Goldman, drawn from a real-life political activist and anarchist.

CASTELLANOS: “Now that we’re closer, now that we’re all comfortable, we put in more effort.”

After nearly every rehearsal, teachers and directors give students a talk, urging them to immerse themselves in the feelings of their characters, relating to them if necessary through their parents, grandparents or ancestors who were immigrants, or through current events.

“What if you saw someone beaten, and bloodied and killed in front of you?” one director asked.

They also remind students of why the play should be impactful. “You have to figure out how for two-and-a-half hours you can give hope to that audience,” Marie Hayden, Hinkley’s choir director told students last week.

CASTELLANOS: “I think it it helps us. Every day, we get more into it and more into it until we actually believe it. You actually feel it — like how Janelle feels when she’s singing and she starts crying and makes everybody cry. We all feel connected.”

Students say they have different scenes that impact them the most, but they don’t hesitate to find how the scenes relate to their life despite the story being set in the first decade of the 1900s. Hayden’s class and the practice for the musical are safe places where they can discuss those parallels, they said.

Shavaun Mar, 16, is a junior who plays the main character of Coalhouse Walker Jr., a ragtime piano player who is the target of racial attacks and struggles with revenge and forgiveness.

MAR: “I feel like that is crucial that we give people those opportunities to talk because a lot of people have very valid things to say but they just don’t have a way to get it out.”

CASTELLANOS: “The shootings.”

ARZATE: “The racism. They help us discuss it because there’s so many things that are going on. Pretty much everyday there’s a tragedy going on. And so, in a way, we can use that sentiment, that emotion that we feel with the real world and convey it when we’re doing this show. We use those feelings and we try to think about it in that way. To display that emotion. To display it to everyone else. And not directly represent what’s going on today but just to give them that ‘aha’ moment, like ‘wow.’”

Ebony Nash, 17, plays the character of Sarah, an innocent girl who wants to help her boyfriend settle his problems.

NASH: “It just makes us want justice in real life because these things are still going on even though it’s not out there. It just makes us want justice for our community. This musical showed me that I need to become better within myself because I’m not perfect.”

SOTELO: “It opened my eyes a lot more for sure. This kind of just makes me realize the problems I have. It makes me realize yea, I’m having immigration issues with my father right now, but that also my friends, you know, they’re going through the same thing too. This DACA stuff or this coming out stuff. I became more accepting of what other people might be going through and how I can help.”

MAR: “The past few years, I have been in a bit of a shell. So putting myself in this situation and pushing myself to be this other person has really shown me what I’m capable of and it’s helping me break out of that shell and realize who I am as a person.”

NASH: “Basically, this is our getaway from real life because we get to come on stage and be somebody else. It also makes us want to put the story out right so people can understand. So people can feel what we want them to feel.”

CASTELLANOS: “That there’s hope after all this corruption that’s going on.”

DOUGLAS: “That even in your bad times you can still laugh, cry, dance.”

NASH: “What I want people to get from this is change. To learn how to change and learn how to forgive and learn how to come together as a community and just, like their worth.”

SOTELO: “And to be strong. To stand up for what’s right.”

ARZATE: “And it might sound weird, but I feel like they should feel a certain level of uncomfort because that means that they’re going to look at themselves while seeing the musical. Maybe they’ll go ‘I’m uncomfortable because I do that’ or ‘I have that prejudice’ or ‘I feel that certain way,’ so if they come out and they feel uncomfortable and then at the end they’re like, ‘Wow. There’s that hope for change.’ Hopefully that like…”

DOUGLAS: “… It inspires them to do better.”

ARZATE: “Like, you can do it.”

SOTELO: “It’s kind of like a water droplet. One small move can domino-effect to something bigger.”

 



Taking attendance

Want to make middle school admissions more fair? Stop looking at this measure, parents say

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Middle school students write their names down at a high school fair in Brooklyn.

Parents across New York City have pushed for changes in the way selective middle schools pick their students, saying the process is unfair.

Now, a group of Manhattan parents has come up with a novel solution: Stop looking at students’ attendance records.

The parent council in District 2 — where about 70 percent of middle schools admit students based on their academic records — points to research showing that students from low-income families are far more likely to miss school. Those children are at a distinct disadvantage in the competition for the district’s top middle school seats, the council argues, even though factors beyond the control of any fourth-grader — especially family homelessness — often account for poor attendance and tardiness.

“This outsized focus on attendance disproportionately impacts students who don’t have secure housing and may not have secure healthcare, and that is troubling to me,” said Eric Goldberg, a member of the community education council in District 2, which includes stretches of Lower Manhattan and the Upper East Side. “There are many factors that should not impact a student’s educational opportunities — and the way the system is set up, it does.”

Eighteen of the district’s 24 middle schools are “screened,” meaning they rank applicants based on factors including test scores, grades, and interviews. Of those, all but one school also considers how often students were late or absent in fourth grade, according to the parent council.

Most of the schools assign points to each factor they consider. Some give absences 10 times more weight than science or social studies grades, the council found, while others penalize students for even a single absence or instance of tardiness.

Disadvantaged students are especially likely to miss school.

A recent report by the city’s Independent Budget Office found that homeless students are more likely than other students to be chronically absent — typically defined as missing about 10 percent of the school year.

Schools with the highest chronic absenteeism are in communities in “deep poverty,” which have the highest rates of unemployment and family involvement with the child-welfare system, according to a 2014 report by the New School at the Center for New York City Affairs.

“We can use chronic absenteeism as a good guess of all the other things kids are dealing with,” said Nicole Mader, a senior research fellow at the New School and a co-author of the report. “If these middle schools are using absenteeism to weed kids out, that means they’re going to automatically weed out those kids who have the most barriers to academic success already.”

The attendance requirement can put pressure on any family, regardless of their financial status or housing situation.

Banghee Chi, a parent of two children in District 2, said she sometimes sent her younger daughter to school with a fever when she was in fourth grade rather than have her marked absent.

Her daughter would show up to class only to be sent to the school’s health clinic — which would call Chi to pick her up. Chi was thinking ahead to middle school, when a missed day of class could hurt her chances of getting into the most sought-after schools.

“It was something I was really conscious and aware of during my child’s fourth-grade year,” she said. “I think it’s unfair.”

The education council’s resolution, which will be put to vote in December, is nonbinding because middle schools set their own admissions criteria. But a show of support from parents could lead to action from the education department, which has been prodded by integration advocates to make other changes in high school and middle school admissions.

This summer, the department announced it would end the practice of “revealed rankings,” which allowed middle schools to select only those students who listed them first or second on their applications. The city is also appointing a committee of parents, educators, and community leaders in Brooklyn’s District 15 to come up with a proposal for making that district’s middle school applications process more fair.

“We’re collaborating with communities across the city to make school admissions more equitable and inclusive, including in District 2,” said department spokesman Will Mantell in an email. The department looks forward “to further conversations about this resolution and other efforts to improve middle school admissions in District 2.”