Students left on corner as Philly district reduces busing service

 (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

“Transportation is a privilege, not a right,” says the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Last week, the Philadelphia School District announced that 7,500 fewer high school kids would be so honored.

The move came as the district announced that it would close its $81 million budget gap with a mishmash of cuts and hopes.

In order to save $3.8 million, high school students living within two miles of school will no longer receive subsidized SEPTA transpasses. The previous threshold was 1.5 miles.

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”We would hope that this wouldn’t have an impact on students being able to get to school on time,” said Fran Burns, who oversees student transportation as the district’s chief operating officer.

“Maybe there will be carpooling or different mechanisms of families helping each other to get to school,” Burns said. “But … the hope is that there wouldn’t be an effect on attendance.”

The change – which the district hopes will be temporary – will affect 4,586 students at district schools, 2,148 students at charters and 729 students at other nonpublic schools.

The district uses its own internal mapping tool to determine home-to-school distances. Using something like Google maps may yield “some differentiation,” said Burns.

Last year, approximately 44,000 students — 25,000 district, 13,000 charter and 6,000 nonpublic — in grades nine through 12 received subsidized school transportation.

The changes will not affect elementary or middle school students.

Burns said the district hadn’t yet spoken with SEPTA about the changes, but would soon inquire if affected students could be eligible for the student discount that school districts receive.

Under normal SEPTA pricing — assuming a student’s school commute requires only one bus or train — the most affordable option would be to purchase tokens. Fares for tokens are reduced from the typical $2.25 to $1.80.

Two trips per day at 180 school days per year equals a total transportation cost of $648.

If students need to make a transfer, weekly or monthly passes become more price friendly. At $91 per monthly pass, students in this scenario would pay $910 in transportation costs for the school year.

A SEPTA official confirmed there has been no discussion of offering affected students a discounted rate.

Matt Stanski, the district’s chief financial officer, said the change “was not an easy decision,” but agreed that impact on academics would be minimal.

“It’s an increased burden on families,” he said. “But … if we thought it was going to have a huge impact on attendance, we would not have recommended it.”

Ground level

Students and educators, though, expressed concern.

South Philadelphia High School principal Otis Hackney said losing transportation was sure to be a shock to some of his students.

“You know you could be a senior and all the sudden you’re just like, ‘This is the first time I have to walk to high school,'” he said. “So, it’s just going to be a change, and just trying to make sure they feel comfortable getting to school depending on what neighborhoods they have to cross.”

Tardiness has been a major problem at Southern, with more than 50 percent of students arriving late every day.

Increasing punctuality was one of Hackney’s goals this year, but losing transportation makes the job much more difficult.

“That’s not going to help,” he said.

The district’s overall resource and staffing deficiencies are so bad, he said, it makes it difficult to leverage students into correcting their behavior.

“Punitive measures with support can work if you have the right people,” he said, “but we don’t necessarily have the right support systems in place.”

Chris Lehmann, principal at the magnet school Science Leadership Academy, said his staff will help affected students and families organize ridesharing through online message boards. But he said he worries some of SLA’s population will fall through the cracks.

“It’s deeply concerning that there are going to be kids who are going to have to be spending family money if they can’t get a ride to get to school,” he said. “We’re going to see an impact on that.”

“Getting to school shouldn’t have to be a financial concern for a family,” said Lehmann.

Constitution High School sophomore Annisa Washington isn’t yet sure if she’ll be affected by the change, but worries for her classmates.

“Most youth that I know, their parents don’t have a car,” she said. “They can’t afford the gas.”

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