School Bus Issues Mar First Week of School in Charlestown

Yellow school buses couldn’t be more visible in most cases, but during the first week of school, many Charlestown parents found them to be quite invisible.

Parents, particularly those whose kids use the bus to get to the Eliot School campus in the North End, reported that the buses were routinely late, that bus stops were moved abruptly with little notice, and the buses sometimes didn’t show up.

There were few issues at the Warren Prescott School, but the Harvard Kent reportedly experienced some disruption for kids coming into the neighborhood. However, at the Eliot, Charlestown students were by and large missing the bus over the first few days of school.

Jessica DeRoeve, who has two kids that attend the Eliot, said the buses were particularly bad this year during the start of school, and bus notices didn’t go out to parents until Sept. 3 – just a few days before school.

“It’s the worst year yet, and the bus issue about being late has been going on for a few years,” she said. “The big takeaways are no one got their bus notices about where the bus stop would be and what bus to take even though the letters were dated Aug. 19. We got them on Sept. 3 in the mail. That left no time to plan. On the same day, we got the e-mail notice. Even if they screwed up the date or something, it left no time for parents to plan or make changes. If anyone was expecting to take the bus on day one of school – good luck.”

DeRoeve said bus stops were complicated this year, as students on the same street going to the same location got different bus stop locations. While in the past her children had a bus stop close to their home near Medford Street, this year they had to cross two busy streets and go over the hill to a bus stop on Main Street.

“The amount of families that had trouble with the bus is just ridiculous,” she said. “I think there were a lot of stops in the neighborhood where the bus never showed up. No one ever came and the tracker said the bus was already in the North End. I don’t know if I’m going to send my kids on the bus anymore. They’ve just never been able to get the times right and get the kids to school on time, which makes the kids nervous.”

At the Eliot, some parents resorted to sending kids with Ubers, or driving in emergency carpool situation. Some simply walked across the Low Bridge and accepted the fact they were going to be late. The disruption at the Eliot for parents sent ripples through the community, but it was also a citywide issue.

On Tuesday, Supt. Brenda Cassellius said she was looking into the situation and wasn’t happy.

“As a parent myself, I would be very upset about the buses and the delays that are there,” she said. “Right away we began communicating with parents via robocalls and letting them know what to expect and working with our tracking system so they could better plan their day. We also tried to better communicate with parents…We’re still trying to work on those. It’s not where I want it to be so we’ll be doing some route clinics to look at where the problems are that were brought to our attention. We’re quickly trying to resolve those with the bus drivers and the families. We’ll continue to do that.”

One change is that the bus drivers, who are employed by the contractor – TransDev, are now going to be working directly with Cassellius and the district. She said she attended their orientation last Saturday and stressed the importance of getting the situation under control.

“I am working with them and TransDev, the bus contractor,” she said. “We’re trying to understand the routing and getting to the bottom of it and making sure our buses run on time at the beginning of next year.”

She said the company – which has been roundly criticized by parents for its inconsistencies over the past several years – is under contract for the rest of the year. However, there will be an RFP put out for next year’s services, and that will be evaluated carefully before a contract is awarded.

“I will be working with them on the current issue, which is my priority, and looking toward the future,” she said. “I’ll be trying to understand better why we’re having these complex issues within Boston. Obviously we know our streets are very complex, but there are a number of other systemic issues we’ll be looking at deeper.”

The district did confirm that there was a mistake this year when it came to sending out the bus notices. While they were dated Aug. 19 and should have gone out much earlier, there was a problem within the district and at the Post Office in getting the letters out. That has resulted in a change to the overall system where the district will no longer rely only on US Mail for bus notices, but also utilize student portals and e-mail notifications.

Districtwide, figures provided by BPS showed that on-time arrivals were worse this year than in past years. However, they also showed that as time went on, buses got better at getting to school on time.

On the first day of school, only 43 buses got to school on time, which was down from 51 percent last year. By Day 8 of school, 80 percent of buses were on time. The afternoon return trip was a little more reliable across the district, with 65 percent arriving on time the first day. However, the level of improvement was far less than the morning buses, with only 72 percent arriving on time by Day 7.

DeRoeve said getting kids to school on the bus should be an issue that the district should focus on, as it is so fundamental.

“We need to get this right,” she concluded.

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