Districts Are Following No One MapIn Ferrying Youngsters After School

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Last fall, when the Denver school system redesigned its bus routes, officials decided that they could no longer afford to accommodate special requests for after-school transportation.

The end of court-ordered busing to desegregate the district meant that neighborhood attendance boundaries for the city's elementary schools would be reinstituted. That meant children would be dropped off only at stops near their homes.

The policy change angered parents, and some even transferred their children to neighboring school districts, said Richard Frye, a spokesman for the Denver district. "We just got blasted."

The situation in Denver is not uncommon. In many communities, school officials are struggling to balance financial and safety concerns with parents' need to get their children to before- or after-school care. In some areas, officials are facing transfer requests as parents seek to move their children to schools with child-care programs or to schools closer to where the parents work.

For many parents who work outside the home, the 3 p.m. hour triggers a Monday-through-Friday struggle to get their children safely from school to wherever they will spend the rest of the afternoon.

"I know from experience that kids are having to go home alone because they can't get to a program that is offered," said Susan O'Conner, a research associate with the School-Age Child Care Project at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

Few children have access to after-school care at their schools.

According to the definitive 1993 "National Study of Before and After School Programs" sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, 1.7 million children were enrolled in some type of after-school program, but only 28 percent of those programs were inside a public school building.

Eighty-four percent of the respondents to a 1988 survey of elementary and middle school principals said children in their communities needed supervised care before and after school, but only 22 percent provided such programs at their schools. The Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of Elementary School Principals conducted the survey of 1,175 principals.

Most parents who need to use such programs are left wondering how to get their children from point A to point B without leaving work to provide transportation themselves.

Some school districts offer such transportation, and many child-care centers and nonprofit programs provide vans to pick children up. In Chicago, for example, after-school-care providers even walk to surrounding elementary schools to escort children to the programs. And of course, working parents also rely on relatives or neighbors to chauffeur their children.

But even when school districts provide transportation, bus drivers often won't pick children up from one location in the morning and drop them off somewhere else in the afternoon. Sometimes parents even ask schools to deliver their children to two or three different locations during the week.

"Kids get lost in the shuffle, and I'm not willing to accept that responsibility," said Ted Tull, the administrative director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services and the former state director of school transportation in Delaware.

Parents Seek Transfers

Like the Denver system, most districts say they can't afford to go the extra mile.

"Every time a wheel turns, that costs money," in the form of overtime pay for drivers and added strain on buses, Mr. Tull said.

In the Washington area, school district policies against transporting students have sparked a number of requests from parents to transfer their children into schools that are closer to the day-care centers they attend. Some districts are able to accommodate those requests, while others have to turn families down because the schools already are overcrowded.

In growing Calvert County, Md., on the Chesapeake Bay, school officials are planning to crack down on the number of transfers granted for child-care reasons. A lot of parents who work outside the county ask to transfer their children to schools in the northern part of Calvert, where there are more child-care centers. But now many of those schools are overcrowded.

"It has to stop," said Kathryn Coleman, the district's director of pupil services. "We just have too many students going to schools other than the ones where they were assigned."

Parents also seek to transfer their children into schools that run after-school programs, even if they don't live within the attendance boundaries for those schools.

The 280-student Mason Elementary School is one of the few in Boston that offer after-school care. Maria Costa, a 2nd grade teacher at the school and the director of the after-school program, said she constantly receives requests from parents who want to enroll their children in the school specifically because of the need for child care. But she can't even accommodate all the children who already attend the school.

In Boston, where offering after-school care is up to local principals, getting even a few schools to provide programs is a significant step, said Laura Gang, the assistant director for school-age advocacy with the Boston-based Parents United for Child Care.

"It doesn't work to say to the schools, 'You have to do this,'" she said. "They are already overwhelmed with all the new demands that are being put upon them. It's working better here to go slow and strike a collaborative note."

On-Site Services

Whatever districts save in the transportation budget by limiting drop-offs to child-care programs, they lose in public relations by not meeting parents' needs, argued Clark Adams, the president of the Boston-based Mulberry Child Care Centers.

Many private child-care providers now prefer to run their programs inside schools because of a lack of space in their own centers, coupled with the transportation hassles.

Mr. Adams' company operates 18 Stay & Play after-school programs in Massachusetts and Connecticut, most of them inside public schools. One of the programs is at a health and fitness facility.

"We started doing that because our child-care centers tend to be full of preschoolers," Mr. Adams said.

While the transportation issue may create headaches for a lot of parents and district officials, using school buses to get students to nonschool programs can work well as long as the district is not saddled with the extra cost, said Mike Martin, the executive director of the National Association of Pupil Transportation in Albany, N.Y.

Transportation departments in a lot of urban districts, which often are already struggling financially, would prefer to have the extra business, he said.

"We want those kids, regardless of where they're going, on a yellow bus," Mr. Martin said. "It's the safest way to get them there."

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