Update: At its Feb. 24 meeting, the school board asked some clarifying questions about who this new bus would serve and when and where it would run, but overall indicated support for purchasing a dedicated bus for VTP students.
Palo Alto High School graduate David Chatman wishes there had been a dedicated bus to ease the often grueling, undependable and limiting commute that Paly students who live in East Palo Alto take. He, like many of the Voluntary Transfer Program (VTP) students who currently attend Paly, depended on public transportation to get to and from school every day.
Chatman called the public bus "an inconvenient convenience." It got him to school but not always on time. The infrequency of buses in the evenings affected whether he would play football and basketball (he did, though it was difficult). And when it wasn't convenient to catch the bus, he would sometimes walk home from school or have a friend drop him off at the U.S. Highway 101 overpass that connects the two cities.
"I know kids in East Palo Alto still go through that today, just jumping on the bus, trying to get between cities," he said. "I know it's hard."
The district is proposing to ease the 40-to-60-minute commute by purchasing a dedicated bus, the possibility of which the school board will discuss at its meeting Tuesday night. If approved, the purchase could take up to six months to complete.
Transportation has a significant impact on the lives of the 585 VTP students -- and their families -- enrolled in the district through a longtime program that allows a select number of Ravenswood City School District students to attend Palo Alto Unified schools, but it's particularly challenging for high schoolers.
VTP students can take school buses until 9th grade, at which point they can apply for free passes to take public transportation to school. (Though for the first time this year, a few Paly freshmen were able to take a Jordan Middle School bus to school as part of a pilot program.) The City of Palo Alto does now run a free shuttle from East Palo Alto, but it only stops at the downtown Caltrain station and at City Hall.
Some students get rides from parents, friends or carpools, but for those who depend on public transportation, it affects their sleep; decisions about whether or not to participate in sports, extracurriculars or external support programs; and hanging out with friends after school or seeking help from teachers.
"There were times my sophomore year I was contemplating not playing football, just because I was in transition, trying to be really good at school, trying to get homework done," Chatman recalled. "By the time I get home (from football) I'm tired because I've been on the bus for the last hour and half going through traffic in downtown Palo Alto. ... To focus on homework was almost close to impossible."
Chatman said the commute put a strain on his mother, too. She would pick him up on the days when he was exhausted and didn't want to take the bus.
"Those are the days my mom would come get me," he said. "She would take off work or try to fight traffic to come pick me up. It was just a tough battle all the way around taking the bus or getting a ride from my parents."
"It's just really frustrating," said Paly senior Tiffany Fields, whose mother, a school bus driver, has for four years driven her to a bus stop farther from their East Palo Alto home in the morning so she can catch a 7:15 a.m. bus that gets her to school in time for first period at 8:15 a.m. (There is a bus that stops closer to her house but only at 6:50 a.m. and 7:50 a.m. She knows some students who opt for the earlier time.)
"It's just annoying, having to get to school so early, having to rush to school. Sometimes when you do all-nighters to study, it really sucks not being able to get that extra 30 minutes of sleep," Fields said.
After school, Fields often chooses to catch a bus that comes fives minutes after seventh period gets out, at 3:25 p.m., rather than stay to talk to teachers or hang out with friends. She missed the bus one morning last week and decided to stay home for the day.
Fields said taking the bus also is often an unpleasant experience. Recently, a guy on the bus who she thought was "crazy" instigated a fight with two students; another day, a man was taking photos of her, so she got off and called a friend to pick her up.
"I think a new bus would help a lot. I feel like a lot more kids that don't even catch the city bus would feel a lot more comfortable catching (a school bus)," Fields said. "Some peoples' parents just don't want them catching a city bus. They don't think it's safe so they make them wait or they find someone else to take them."
The story is slightly different for Gunn High School VTP students, who don't have a school bus but often take one that runs to and from Terman Middle School, just down the street from Gunn. The timing also works for them -- the Gunn school day starts 10 minutes later than Paly's, unless students are taking a zero-period class at 7:20 a.m.
There are also far fewer VTP students at Gunn: about 24 this year compared to Paly's 126, according to District Education Services Coordinator Judy Argumedo, who oversees the VTP program and has been pushing for a dedicated East Palo Alto school bus for more than a year.
"I really feel strongly that these are some of the obstacles that can really hurt students," she said.
Argumedo hopes that she can offer the new bus, which would serve approximately 60 students each day and cost the district $175,000, as an option to every incoming Paly VTP student next year.
Maria Arias, the mother of a current Paly freshman and El Carmelo Elementary School first-grader, has to shift her morning routine if her son and daughter can't take the school or city bus and she has to drop each off before going to work.
"I think it would be better if there were a bus," she told the Weekly in Spanish.
Transportation has been repeatedly brought up at meetings of the district's minority achievement and talent development committee by members who view differences in access to transportation as an obstacle to academic achievement.
"Transportation is one big resonating problem because, as one principal was telling me, if that hour doesn't go well on the way there, the rest of the learning, the rest of the day does not go well either," committee member and parent Carmen Munoz said at the group's Feb. 3 meeting. "These are things that affect the kids' learning."
Chatman, who took five years to graduate, said he might have been a different student if he had had more flexible, dependable transportation options.
The board will discuss the bus purchase as part of a second interim financial report at its Tuesday, Feb. 24, meeting, which begins at 6:30 p.m. at district headquarters, 25 Churchill Ave. Other items of business include a discussion of both high schools' Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) reports and board action on a pilot Mandarin-immersion program for Jordan Middle School.
View the full agenda here.