BPS restores Charlestown exam school buses after weeks of uncertainty, frustration for parents

By Seth Daniel

Under fire from hundreds of parents in Charlestown that have kids at Boston Latin School (BLS) and Boston Latin Academy (BLA) and rely on the neighborhood bus, the Boston Public Schools (BPS) announced on Wednesday that they would restore the previously cut BLS and BLA buses after more than a week of uncertainty about their future.

This coming one week before the new school term was set to start on Sept. 7, and parents worried that their students – some as young as 12 – would have to use public transportation to get to far-off locales like the Fenway and Roxbury.

“The Boston Public Schools Transportation Department will continue to offer the shuttle bus between Charlestown and Boston Latin School for both the morning and the afternoon during the 2017-18 school year,” read a statement from the central office. “We hope that this will make getting to and from school easier for our students.”

The BPS also assured at the same time that the BLA yellow bus would not be cut and would remain intact for the coming school year.

The statement indicated that students will also receive free MBTA passes and BPS will continue to assess the cost and feasibility of offering shuttle buses on a case-by-case basis each year.

The sudden cut this month, and then restoration this week, was frustrating and mind-boggling for parents who said they were told in the spring, and up until July, that the bus would be making the same runs it had for years between Charlestown and BLA and BLS. Then, suddenly, in early August, they learned that the bus would not be offered to them. That set off a firestorm in the neighborhood that had been raging among exam school parents until Wednesday.

“All of this makes absolutely no sense; they need to explain themselves,” said BLA parent Jenn Herlihy of Charlestown, after the announcement on Wednesday.

The situation has aggravated parents from both schools to the extreme over the past few weeks due to some miscommunication, parents said. Parents who thought they would once again have dedicated yellow school bus service to Boston Latin School (BLS) and Boston Latin Academy (BLA) learned recently that their children – some as young as 12 years old – will have to navigate their way through the public transportation system to get to school.

In Charlestown, and also in East Boston, the two exam schools have been afforded a dedicated yellow school bus each that take kids on almost a direct route to the Fenway for BLS and to Roxbury’s Warren Street for BLA. Both are very far rides for students, whose schools start at 7:20 a.m. (BLA) and 7:45 a.m. (BLS), and a daunting and nearly impossible ride, parents say, using the MBTA.

Cuts to the neighborhood buses in East Boston were also restored this week, School Officials said.

Charlestown parents from both schools quickly organized in the last few weeks around the issue, with petitions for both BLA and BLS circulating with more than 100 signatures and growing. Parents say both buses, which have been threatened unsuccessfully with cuts in previous years, have routinely been full and completely utilized by students from grades 7-12.

“The overriding idea is this was a short-sighted decision given with no notice and not enough time for parents to be heard,” said Herlihy, whose daughter used the BLA bus last year. “Parents should have been told before they elected to attend the exam school. Those two full buses from Charlestown were not that big of a drag on the School Department budget. It’s absolutely ludicrous that somehow they suggest we should have been ready for this. As late as July we were told we would have the bus again. Just recently they said that was a mistake, apologized, and said we didn’t have bus service. That’s not equitable and it’s not fair.”

Every since a new policy a few years back to eliminate bus service for students as young as grade 7 (about 11 or 12 years old), many parents across the city have struggled with the idea of having young children using confusing public transportation systems to get to school – systems that sometimes involve long commutes, many transfers and unreliable service in bad weather.

BPS said it uses a variety of factors to offer limited shuttle service as is done in Charlestown. Some of those factors include the distance from the school and the numbers of students. Those students in grades 7 through 12 who don’t get a yellow bus have to take the MBTA to school.

Herlihy and other parents said the BLA buses usually picked up in Charlestown at 6:28 a.m., arrived at the schools between 7 and 7:10 a.m., with an early start time for the school at 7:20 a.m.

Having to use public transportation would have made the trek nearly impossible with the early start time, plus the idea of having to transfer to the subway at Haymarket where there is an active Methadone Clinic operating at that same time in the morning hours.

“To get to BLA from Charlestown would mean getting on public transportation by 6 a.m. in the morning,” Herlihy said. “From Charlestown, it would be getting on the first bus before 6 a.m., transferring at Haymarket where the Methadone Clinic is at and traveling by train and several buses for more than an hour. I don’t know if they would even get there by the start time in a perfect situation. And these are kids who could be as young as 12 years old.”

The issue has also sparked interest within the District 1 Council campaign, with two of the candidates issuing statements in support of keeping the yellow bus.

“I am concerned about placing any barriers to accessing an education,” said Candidate Lydia Edwards. “I am also concerned about the lack of notice and the fact that many parents feel unheard and dismissed. If the question is about equity then let’s have a comprehensive conversation and assess our busing system. When the results from studies about costs, impact and equity are fully vetted and transparent is when we can make a decision about cancelling the bus. Right now it’s simply the wrong decision at the wrong time.”

Candidate Stephen Passacantilli said he is a BLS parent in the North End, and eliminating the bus from Charlestown was simply not fair.

“I understand the challenges facing parents who want their children to arrive at school safely and on time,” he said. “It is not fair to expect children as young as 12 or 13 years old to navigate the MBTA system alone. Furthermore, it is an undue burden for young students to rely on multiple forms of public transportation, which could well take an hour or more, impacting their ability for students to engage in afterschool programs, enrichment opportunities, and sports in their communities.”

Overall, Herlihy said the immediate concern to get both the buses reinstated this year in Charlestown before school starts has been resolved. However, she said the bigger issue might be re-addressing the decision to cut bus service for middle schoolers – and that maybe it is a bad idea to have them using public transportation at that young age.

“The bigger issue is to address this policy and the wisdom of this policy that they implemented a few years ago for middle school students,” Herlihy said.

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