Greg Thompson said there appears to be no financial or logistical option to make a bus route possible and that that the effort must come from the superintendent’s cabinet or Board of Education – not the principal’s office.
“It’s not something I’m actively working on,” said Thompson, who was transferred to the alternative program this summer after six years as principal of Butler High School. “With the budget being tight, it’s hard to squeeze in any new services.”
The alternative program’s former principal, Wayne Frazier, made advocating for transportation one of the biggest priorities of his administration and unsuccessfully petitioned the Board of Education several times to provide buses.
Frazier, who resigned in July after being demoted to a classroom teacher, said dozens of students were missing school altogether because their parents did not have cars to drive them or they couldn’t make it on time on the city buses.
Students are given the option of attending the alternative program on Baker Avenue downtown after being suspended from their zone schools for disciplinary infractions. They come from schools all over the district and stay in the program for varying lengths of time, so enrollment is constantly fluctuating.
Parent Shani Briggs said her 11th-grade son missed the first day of school Monday and will continue to stay home because she does not have a car to drive the 30-mile round trip from their home in Hephzibah.
When Briggs’ son was first assigned to the alternative program last year, Briggs went so far as to have him move to a relative’s house downtown so he’d be in walking distance of the school. The relative moved away, though, and the boy returned to his home in Hephzibah with no way to get to school.
“My only option is to pay somebody to get him back and forth to school, but that’s hard,” Briggs said. “He wants to go to school. He wants to finish. The only reason he got in trouble in the first place was because a boy jumped on a girl and he was trying to break up a the fight. He made a simple mistake, but he wants to learn.”
Board of Education members last discussed the issue in February when board attorney Pete Fletcher described difficulties involved in a shuttle-type system that staffers were considering.
Fletcher said the staff looked at running one bus to six or seven community centers across the county that would serve as hubs for pickup. In December, representatives from Juvenile Court asked the board to consider paying for such an arrangement because it could significantly affect the success of its efforts to reduce juvenile crime.
Juvenile Court Judge Pamela Doumar told board members that the court would contribute $3,000 to the effort and that the Department of Juvenile Justice had agreed to put probation officers onto the bus and into the community center hubs to monitor the students.
However Fletcher said to make the bus route work, it would have to start at 5:30 a.m. and end later than 6 p.m., which were hours the probation officers could not manage.
Although Juvenile Court offered to pay $3,000, which came out to half the projected cost (per semester), board members said there was no money in the budget to cover the remaining $3,000. Some board members said even that if the money was available, they would not support funding a bus because transportation is a privilege that students lose when they misbehave.
Board member Frank Dolan said that with students attending the alternative program from all over the district, accommodating them with a bus “would be a logistical nightmare” and something that he would not support because losing transportation is part of the punishment.
“They don’t appreciate what we give them until it’s taken away,” Dolan said. “Those kids in Nigeria, those kids in Gaza, in Syria, they would love it if they got to go to school and just had to behave. These kids are just throwing away a golden opportunity to be what they want to be in life.”
Robert Eichorn, the president of the National Alternative Education Association, said school districts should never create barriers for education because that only increases a child’s chances of becoming a dropout and a burden on society.
“The cost of not providing services to our kids on the front end is astronomical socially, fiscally and emotionally on the back end,” Eichorn said.
One high school dropout costs society an estimated quarter of a million dollars over the course of 10 years, Eichorn said, a cost that could be avoided with supportive services early on.
He said many districts come up with creative ways to accommodate alternative students – such as the hub system Richmond County was considering, partnerships with public bus companies and grants to fund bus services. He said some districts house alternative programs in separate wings within the traditional zone schools or at the traditional schools during evening hours.
More important, Eichorn said, many students who end up in alternative programs are there with emotional and social challenges and are in the most need to be put back on track to live a positive, productive life.
“Scores of our business leaders and civic leaders may have had issues when they were kids and were afforded a second chance,” he said. “All of us, when we look in the mirror, can say somebody gave us a second chance along the way. By not providing those opportunities and resources, we’re missing an opportunity to help.”