January 6, 2015 – Philadelphia Daily News – by Ronnie Polaneczky
IN PHILLY, if your child is late to school often enough, you may be hauled into Truancy Court to explain why your kid isn’t in class when he should be.
If only the absences were taken as seriously when the lateness is caused by the Philadelphia School District.
Since September, Monica Klimas’ son Danny Gallagher has been late to Gen. Philip Kearny School countless times. That’s because the bus that picks him up at home in Bridesburg can’t reliably get him to Kearny, in Northern Liberties, in time for the morning bell.
“Look at this,” Klimas says, opening the log she has kept of Danny’s tardy pickups. Except for October, when the bus miraculously arrived within minutes of its scheduled time, Danny’s transportation has been as unreliable as a Comcast service call.
On two back-to-back days in December, the bus never came at all.
Some days, sixth-grader Danny, 11, has been as late getting home. One time, he didn’t walk through the door until 5:30 p.m. He was famished and rattled from the two-hour bus ride.
“His day was longer than mine,” says Klimas, an optician who works in East Falls. She doesn’t drive, so if the bus is running really late, it costs her $30 in cab fare to get Danny to school.
She has endlessly e-mailed the district and left unanswered voice mails. She’s also routinely hung up in frustration when the voice-mail box was full.
Klimas worries that Danny, who has Down syndrome and is enrolled with six other intellectually disabled kids in Kearny’s terrific new life-skills program, has missed out on critical class time.
Despite continual reporting of her transit problems to the district, including calls and emails on her behalf made by Kearny principal Daniel Kurtz and his staff, the unpredictability has persisted, Klimas says.
As I listen to this very good mom’s tale of torment, I think, “Man, someone really needs to talk to the Pennsylvania Department of Education about this kind of stupidity.”
Except someone already did.
Last year, the local Coalition of Special Education Advocates filed a formal complaint with the department on behalf of special-ed students whose education plans call for district transportation to and from school.
For years, parents had complained that buses were frequently late. Routes were changed with little warning. Drivers and bus aides were poorly trained to deal with special-needs kids. And parents couldn’t get through to the district for help.
So the state investigated, sending surveys to 254 schools to inquire about transportation services to special-ed students in the 2014-15 school year.
Among the 93 schools that responded, 26 had no issues. The remaining 67 reported that buses had failed 10 times to pick up a student and had been late to school 392 times.
Yep, those are real numbers.
The state has since expanded its survey to monitor transportation services to any school that provides instruction to any district special-ed student.
Meanwhile, the state has concluded that special-ed students who miss instruction or therapies because of transportation problems are entitled to “compensatory education services” to make up for the times they were denied a “free and appropriate public education” as required by law.
Last month, a letter was to have been sent to parents of all special-ed students to tell them that.
District spokesman Fernando Gallard was not aware of the state’s action, but conceded that the district’s goal is always to get kids to school on schedule.
“We’re definitely not meeting that [obligation] all the time,” he says. “The expectation is on us to get it right.”
Still, he says, “we’re dealing with a very large urban transportation system, almost like SEPTA, with 1,600 routes. There are going to be problems with traffic and bus breakdowns that cause late arrivals for students.”
Of the district’s 280 buses, 160 have GPS systems that track in real time a vehicle’s whereabouts, he says; buses provided by private transportation companies to the district are already equipped with the devices.
They don’t appear to have helped special-ed student Terrell Ward, an eighth-grader at Morris E. Leeds Middle School in Mount Airy. His bus service was so erratic that his mom, Tamika Ward-Andrew, was summoned to Truancy Court last fall for his alleged massive absences.
In truth, she says, he was routinely dropped off at school after roll was taken.
“One time,” says Ward-Andrew, “the bus didn’t show up for two weeks in a row; the third week, it was late every day.”
She contacted the Education Law Center for help, and senior staff attorney Maura McInerney was able to get the truancy case dismissed. But Terrell’s record still shows 88 late days and 25 absences – most of them filed in error.
“Our next step is to get the record corrected,” says McInerney.
Hearing these tales, I am floored.
Children thrive on routine and structure. And parents – especially those working outside the home – need a degree of reliability to keep family life from flying off the rails.
And for special-needs kids, says McInerney, the need for predictability is even greater.
“When a child’s class day is disrupted, they can miss more than instruction,” says McInerney. “For children with emotional-support needs, predictability is a critical issue.”
Lateness throws them a curve ball they can’t handle.
Monica Klimas and Tamika Ward-Andrew say their sons love school. And both moms are impressed by the quality and commitment of the special-ed teachers at their kids’ schools.
If only they could say the same about the bus service they rely upon to get them there.
Parents having problems with district-provided transportation can call 215-400-4350, a hotline established as a result of the state investigation. For help securing compensatory services for a child’s missed instruction, contact the Education Law Center at 215-238-6970 or go to https://elc-pa.org.