Boston schools contend with late buses
Despite the latest technology and a new private operator, many Boston public school buses are regularly arriving at schools late, according to a Globe analysis.
In the 2013-14 academic year, the district fell short of its target of a 95 percent on-time performance for the 700-bus fleet, the review of city data shows. About 14 percent of the buses failed to arrive at least five minutes before the morning bell, the official threshold for the school district to declare them late.
About 7 percent of the buses got to school anywhere from a few minutes to more than 100 minutes after the bell, according to the data.
Incomplete figures from the school district suggest the rate of after-the-bell buses worsened to 8.5 percent this year, even when accounting for the winter’s onslaught of snow.
The persistent problem, several years after angry parents demanded improvements to the system, is renewing concerns among some school officials, who worry the late buses are cutting into precious learning time and contributing to students’ stress. To compensate for late buses, many schools have delayed the start of instruction or adjusted schedules in other ways.
“If students are coming in two minutes late or four minutes late or six minutes late, the teacher is either delaying start time or repeating stuff,” said Hardin Coleman, a Boston School Committee member and dean of Boston University’s School of Education. “As a group, everyone loses time.”
Because of a habitually late bus, Rona Guity’s daughter Tryniti routinely arrived 15 or 20 minutes late to her first-grade classroom at Young Achievers Science and Math Pilot K-8 in Mattapan, often missing the class community meeting, an open forum where students can ask homework questions.
“She was coming in on the tail end of things, and that disrupted her day,” said Guity, who now drives her children to school.
School Department administrators say the service is improving as the district embraces a data-driven approach aimed at transporting a greater number of the more than 31,000 students who ride the bus to school on time each day.
“We take every single child being on time very seriously,” said Kim Rice, the school system’s chief operating officer.
Rice said new bus-tracking technology delivers more exact results about the fleet’s whereabouts, allowing the district to better anticipate delays. Transdev, the company hired to oversee daily bus operations in 2013, has deployed new communication equipment and added staff.
An onboard GPS system now identifies when a bus reaches a school’s entrance, a far cry from the days when a school employee stood outside with a clipboard noting when buses arrived. Parents can follow their students’ route with the “Where’s my bus” app.
Bus tardiness affects some schools more than others, the review found. At Tynan Elementary in South Boston, 20 percent of the buses arrived after the bell during the 2013-14 school year. At Quincy Elementary in Chinatown and Edison K-8 school in Brighton, after-the-bell arrivals happened 18 percent of the time. At Jackson-Mann K-8 school in Allston, it was 16 percent.
During the 2011-12 school year, the Globe reported on chronic lateness at some of the same schools, which had drawn complaints from teachers and parents. The district fined the bus operator at the time, First Student, hundreds of thousands of dollars.
When it signed the contract with Transdev, the district scrapped late fines and instead offered an incentive of $1 million if the company hit the 95 percent on-time target, among other performance indicators. After the 2013-14 school year, the district paid out zero of that incentive, Rice said.
“Above everything else, our top priority is to make sure children arrive to school and back home safely,” Alex Roman, general manager at Transdev in charge of the School Department’s operation, wrote in an e-mail. “We take this responsibility very seriously and would not compromise safety in order to earn a monetary incentive or meet a contractual on-time goal.”
Not surprisingly, school buses were more frequently late in September, when drivers were still learning routes, and during Boston’s notorious traffic jams.
Despite the innovations, the district still must confront what Katherine Grassa, principal at the Curley K-8 school in Jamaica Plain, called the “challenging puzzle” of establishing a network of routes in a city known for narrow streets and congestion.
School buses traverse the city via about 2,000 routes, logging about 26,000 miles each day. In addition to district schools, the buses make drops at charter schools, parochial schools, and private special education programs outside the city. Internally, the district sets scheduled arrival times, usually about 15 minutes before the bell. But during the 2013-14 academic year, the majority — 55 percent — arrived after that target.
The duration of most bus routes is 45 to 50 minutes, as hundreds of students travel miles to school. Many students in East Boston, for instance, are ferried away to schools as far away as Brighton, a voyage that takes them through underwater tunnels and along the Mass. Pike, while some students in Allston-Brighton are transported to Quincy Elementary in Chinatown.
Boston is trying to shorten the distances its buses travel under a new school assignment system it adopted in 2013 that limits most school choices for families within a mile radius of their homes. But that model is being phased in over several years, and it will take time before Boston sees a dramatic decline in the distances buses travel.
As a result, many Boston schools have adapted by delaying the start of learning. At Quincy Elementary in Chinatown, which saw one of the highest late-arrival rates in the previous academic year, instruction commences at 9:40 a.m., 10 minutes after the bell.
At Curley, elementary school classrooms begin with an independent learning activity and the middle school students begin with homeroom, Grassa said. Students are considered late at 8:35 a.m., five minutes after the bell; those coming off buses after that time are marked “bus tardy,” which does not go on their records.
But Grassa acknowledged that late buses affect students at her school.
“They are missing learning time,” Grassa said. “And I’m assuming they are going to feel rushed coming into school. It’s get breakfast and get moving. This might create a small level of anxiety depending on the student.”
Coleman agreed, saying that students who arrive late may feel out of step with their peers or believe they have to explain to adults that it was not their fault. That burden can lead to anxiety or depression in some students, effects that have “phenomenally negative” effects on learning outcomes.
Habitual tardiness also widens the achievement gaps for students, Coleman said.
“Being in the school, building relationships with teachers, those things are important, and anything that prohibits them is a problem,” said Coleman, later adding, “It’s an unfortunate problem. No one’s hiding from it. But it’s one we need to solve.”