longer rides

School closures and new routes leave Memphis kids with longer routes, worried drivers

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

Betty Covington says she and her fellow Memphis school bus drivers are being asked to do too much with too little — and students are suffering.

Shelby County Schools changed its bus routes this year, cutting roughly 100 routes to save money. At the same time, several school closures mean that fewer students live close enough to walk to school. Now, drivers are spending more time behind the wheel, and some students have seen their commutes lengthen.

“So often we are blamed for picking up and dropping off late,” Covington told school board members on Tuesday, while wearing the orange vest that bus drivers are known for. “Most of the time, that’s not our fault. The routes assigned to us cannot reasonably be done in the allotted time.”

Covington told the board that she and other bus drivers have ideas about how to improve the situation. Several joined her at the meeting and said they plan to attend other meetings until the district improves the routes — and pays drivers better, too.

“We earn modest hourly rates and struggle to provide for families,” Covington told the board.

Drivers aren’t the only ones complaining. One teacher told Chalkbeat that after her school’s bus routes were consolidated, students were standing in the bus aisles and arriving to school too late to eat breakfast.

The changes came about because the district had to cut costs — at the same time it closed schools.

The district has closed more than 20 schools since 2012, and more students now need bus rides since they live too far from school to walk. That comes at a cost. For example, 366 more students needed buses after Shelby County Schools pulled them out of Corry Middle School as it transitioned to the state-run Achievement School District in 2014.

Covington said drivers are shouldering much of the burden. But long bus routes are taxing on students, too — especially ones who previously have been able to walk to school, such as Fredricka Braden, a senior at Hamilton High School who attended Carver High School until it closed this year.

“The whole point of me going to Carver was because it was in our neighborhood,” Braden said. “I could walk to practice or stay late to talk to teachers. Now, it’s hard to do sports or have that extra time. There’s a lot of time wasted in transit.”

District officials said later that they are in talks with busing contractor Durham School Services to make sure safety needs of drivers are addressed.


Editor’s note: This story has been updated to show that the district is in talks with its busing contractor.

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.