The wheels are in motion for Denver Public Schools’ “Success Express,” a new bus shuttle system hitting the streets this fall for students enrolled in the district’s Far Northeast and Near Northeast school networks.
Excitement about the program is keen enough in the Near Northeast that an informational session and modest celebration was held Thursday at Bruce Randolph School, where about 20 parents and community organizers came together to tout its coming implementation – and to find out more about it.
In both the Far Northeast and Near Northeast, school buses will no longer make a traditional series of stops in neighborhoods – once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Instead, a fleet of DPS buses will circulate between area schools, offering students up to three chances to catch the one that will get them to their school of choice on time.
Key features of the shuttle program include:
- The shuttle system will run longer hours, 6:30 to 9:30 a.m., then 2:30 to 6:30 p.m., facilitating longer and more flexible school days and schedules.
- Each bus will have two adults on board – the driver and a DPS aide, whose primary job will be to make sure students are getting on and off at the right spot, and doing so safely.
- ID tags worn by participating students will indicate what school they are attending.
- Students can get on or off any bus, at any stop, indicating their choices on a DPS “intent to ride form.”
- The shuttle affords three pick-up times, and three drop-off times, at each stop.
- On routes utilized by students across a broad range of ages, older students will be directed toward the rear, with younger students seated in the front.
“I tell people that I personally believe it’s going to change the face of school bus transportation,” said Nita Reske, a DPS transportation services manager on hand at Bruce Randolph.
“And I think it’s time that that happens. I used to always call it ‘destination education.’ That’s what school buses are for. We want to make sure we get our kids to school on time.”
‘Good idea + community backing’
Nola Miguel, a longtime leader with Metro Organizations for People or MOP and parent liaison at Bruce Randolph School, was just one of several at Thursday’s event who credited Pauline Gervais, the former executive director of DPS’ Department of Transportation Services who retired in 2010.
“It took someone with a good idea and the community backing to make it actually happen,” said Miguel. “It was a great idea but it needed the push to really make it happen, and that’s what our MOP leaders and our Northeast parents did, was really give it that push.”
District spokeswoman Marissa Ferrari said the idea was seized upon by parents and community leaders advocating for increased quality school options, who saw a more versatile transportation system as a key tool to support families’ access to those options.
“I would say that over the last two to three years, when it comes to designing and making it work, Pauline Gervais certainly had an enormous role in that work,” said Ferrari.
“She really helped (Gervais’s successor) Nicole Portee design the system and, between the two of them, as well as other senior leaders within DPS, there was recognition that this same system would be a very powerful tool to support school choice also in the Far Northeast system, and so we elected to make it available in both areas, beginning this year.”
Ferrari noted that while there has been significant criticism from some Far Northeast community members on the transformations underway at Montbello High School and five feeder schools, “I don’t think we heard from a single parent there that they thought this was a bad idea.”
On the DPS website, families can find “intent to ride” forms, which require participating students to indicate their school, where they intend to pick up the shuttle and where they intend to get off at the end of the day.
“A lot of families will get on the bus that is closest to their home,” said Ferrari, “but if for some reason it is more convenient to take them to a stop that’s on their way to work, or close to daycare, or if they want to get off at a stop close to their grandmother’s, they can choose the stops on their schedule that is most convenient for them.”
Intent-to-ride forms were ideally to be completed and turned in by the end of the 2010-11 school year, but Ferrari said they can also be presented along with a student’s school registration.
MOP parents praise shuttle plan
Most stops on both the FNE and NNE routes will be school-based stops, but each system will feature a number of community-based stops as well.
- A November 2010 school board presentation showed a projected annual savings to the district of $670,000.
- In the Far Northeast, the traditional transportation service ran at an annual cost of $1.5 million. The 14-bus shuttle will cost $840,000, plus another $210,000 to hire aides, one of which will staff each bus. The expected difference is a net savings of $450,000.
- In the Near Northeast, traditional bus routes cost the district $970,000 annually. The 10-bus shuttle will cost $600,000, plus another $150,000 for aides. That leaves an expected savings of $220,000.
Several NNE parents spoke at Thursday’s Bruce Randolph event, characterizing the program as something that will make a major difference in their lives and their school communities.
Ana Luisa Gallardo is a single mother in North Denver with three children, including one at Cole Arts & Science Academy, another at Gilpin Montessori and a third who will enter Gilpin Montessori next year. She said, “During the day, I take care of two babies. And with this new transportation system, I don’t have to worry about taking the babies out in the rain or the snow to pick up my daughters.”
Gallardo added, “I also have a daughter who has just two more years at Cole and, with this new system, she will have access to transportation to the high school of her choice.”
Martha Carranza, who has a child at Bruce Randolph, said that for students who have depended on RTD, “I was worried because it is very dangerous for the children coming from Globeville and also from Swansea,” adding that often, “the public buses from the city took so long, the kids were arriving late and sometimes missing classes altogether.”
And, said Carranza, “We also found it was difficult for parents to give money to their kids for the RTD because we don’t have extra money to spare. The economy is very bad.
“Now we are very happy that with the new transportation system, no child will have any excuse to miss school. This will help all children be in school, because they are tomorrow’s future.”
Reske, the DPS transportation services manager, said, “I think it’s going to work well, and I’m 100 percent in support of it.
“And I actually can’t wait for it to start because if it works well here, and it works well in the Far Northeast, I can’t imagine where it’s going to go. And it all started right here.”
Some charters in, willingly or not
Charter schools in the FNE and NNE have the option to buy in to the Success Express program, but not all are doing so.
“In theory, we had the option. In reality, the pressure is on that we will participate – at a considerable cost,” said Deborah Blair-Minter, principal at Omar D. Blair Edison Charter K-8 in Green Valley Ranch.
“My charter board said that they did not want to participate. However, what they’re doing is we’re gathering some more information. We’re not the only (charter) school that has said we don’t want to participate.”
One significant drawback, said Blair-Minter, is the expense. DPS officials initially gave her a cost of $92 per pupil, or nearly $76,000 for her 800 students, though they later reduced that amount to $56,000. Those figures, she said, were an “all-or-nothing” cost, not tied to the number of her students actually using the program.
Blair-Minter added, “Educationally, those dollars could be used in the classroom. I have 54 intent-to-ride forms, out of a possible 800. So my charter board is going to continue to push back on, ‘why do you want us to pay for this, if our parents are not feeling like they want to use it?’
“Parents are not as focused on the transportation issue in June,” she conceded. “They will be, in August. It’s possible that we’re going to have a larger participation in August.”
She said about one-third of her students live within a one-mile radius of her campus, and that many either walk to school or are driven by their parents.
Another concern, Blair-Minter said, is that of supervision.
“It’s going to be an interesting challenge because they’re starting at 6:30 in the morning,” she said. “If a kid gets dropped off at 6:30 in the morning, and if we’re not here to receive that child, for that child to be safe, that’s a bit of a problem.”
While her charter board continues to seek more information, Blair-Minter expressed a likelihood that her school will join the Success Express.
“I think we are going to be forced to,” she said. “We are all pretty much being told, you’re going to do this.”
In response to the charge that there is pressure by DPS on charters to join the shuttle program, Vaughn said, “This was designed to be a transportation service available to all of our kids and all of our schools.”
According to Miguel, the MOP leader and Bruce Randolph parent liaison, all charter schools in the NNE are participating, except for Wyatt-Edison Charter School. A message left for the principal Friday morning was not returned.
Allen Smith, executive director of the FNE turnaround, said DPS transportation staff arrived at a cost for charter schools based on projected enrollment. The amount is $71.25 per student for the year.
Smith also said that all six charter schools in the FNE – Omar D. Blair included – have agreed to participate.
Blair-Minter, upon hearing that Smith was counting her school as in, confirmed that it would be.
But, “It’s not willingly,” she said. “It’s, do you want to play nice with us, or not – but you’re going to play. We’re on their court.
“They need all the schools to be compliant. But we are asking for a lot of data, as this goes forward, to see if this works for us. I mean, 56k for 54 students? That is a boatload of money, for 54 out of 800.”