Every morning, Maura O’Toole’s 12-year-old daughter steps aboard a yellow school bus in Jamaica Plain and travels several miles to Boston Latin Academy in Roxbury. Rarely does O’Toole worry about safety, even though violence occasionally flares in the neighborhood around the school. The bus drops her daughter off near the school’s front door, and frequently a staff member greets the children.
But now O’Toole is concerned that the morning ritual may be ending, after Boston school officials unveiled a cost-cutting proposal last monththat would eliminate buses for seventh- and eighth-graders, who instead would receive monthly MBTA passes.
“The idea of the yellow bus is very comforting,” said O’Toole, who opposes the proposal as it stands now because of scant details and concerns over student safety. “I feel like there are a lot of unanswered questions.”
Safety is just one concern emerging as the School Committee considers cutting school bus service next fall for seventh- and eighth-graders who would have qualified for rides. Parents and education advocates also question how the switch could affect attendance or tardiness, because of the logistics of traveling multiple buses or subways to school or the temptation to exit at another stop for a day of play.
Some wonder whether the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority can absorb more than 4,500 additional students in the morning and afternoon commutes and whether bus lines run frequently enough by all the schools.
The move could also complicate the city’s student assignment process, requiring families to investigate public transit routes as they weigh school-choice options.
“I think it’s a bad idea,” said Susan Trotz, a guidance counselor at the Curley K-8 School in Jamaica Plain. “Given that we have hard issues of getting kids to school, it creates another barrier.”
She noted that the change would require many 12- and 13-year-olds to head off to school before sunrise or arrive home after sunset, and she worries that it could exacerbate a socioeconomic divide. While middle-class families would have the means and mode to drive their children to school to avoid any unease with public transit, low-income families may opt to simply keep their children at home, particularly in bad weather.
School officials have voiced optimism about the proposal. They point out that more than 1,800 seventh- and eighth-graders from nine city-run schools and four charter schools, as well as nearly 200 sixth-graders from some of those schools, already take the T.
The school system says the switch could save $8 million even after picking up the full tab for the MBTA passes. The monthly passes would cost the School Department $225 a year for each student, well below the annual cost of busing each student, estimated at $1,323. School officials also intend to try out the program with sixth-graders at some schools on a voluntary basis.
“Every indication we have is that it works fine” at the schools using the T passes, said Brian Ballou, a School Department spokesman. “The MBTA buses have cameras. They are well lit. It makes sense.”
He also said the School Department has seen little variation in attendance and tardiness rates among students who already take the T.
Eliminating the bus service would require School Committee approval. Although members did not share their opinions during a discussion at a Feb. 26 meeting, board member Hardin Coleman urged school officials to track the effects on attendance and tardiness.
Attendance in Boston middle schools is a big problem. A Globe analysis two years ago found that 1 in 4 middle school students was chronically absent during the 2010-11 academic year, missing more than 18 days.
Little research exists on any correlation between public transit and middle school attendance rates, but anecdotal evidence suggests there might be, school attendance experts say.
When Baltimore launched a campaign to combat chronic absenteeism a few years ago, students in focus groups identified problems with public transit as the top reason they were tardy or absent. Baltimore students in the sixth through 12th grades rely on public transit.
The problems ranged from safety, a lack of transit stops near some schools, and the difficulty of coordinating transfer times between buses and with school start times, said Sue Fothergill, education policy director for the Family League of Baltimore, a nonprofit that partners with the city’s school system on attendance initiatives and other programs.
To help families navigate the transit system as they choose schools, Fothergill said, kiosks were set up where families can punch in their addresses to see how many bus connections were required to get to various schools.
Boston school officials are still working out details with the MBTA of the routes the 4,500 students are expected to take, said Kelly Smith, a T spokeswoman.
Some parents question whether switching to T passes is worthwhile. They note that school buses would still be traveling to most of the schools with younger students on board, and often these buses have many empty seats.
Mary Battenfeld, a Jamaica Plain resident, said her children are split on the proposal. She said her son, a sixth-grader at the Irving Middle School in Roslindale, likes the idea of a T pass because of the freedom it would provide. But her daughter, an eighth-grader at Latin Academy, thinks the change would be unfair to students who live far away from their schools.
“I can see it being a voluntary program,” she said. “If parents or students are concerned, they ought to have a good deal of leeway of opting out.”