day thirteen

For one family, bus strike means 8 buses, 4 trains, and few options

Because of the bus strike, 11-year-old Alejandro and his mom, Maria Uruchima, take three buses to get to school.

One month into 2013, Maria Uruchima has already used up almost all of her sick and personal days getting her son to school.

On the verge of pulling him out of school, she found a partial solution to scheduling nightmare created by the bus strike — but one that still leaves her missing work and commuting almost four hours each day.

“I’ve started writing letters to the chancellor and the mayor saying, this is my situation,” Uruchima said. “I’m one of those parents that’s really struggling. I can’t afford to keep my son home because you guys aren’t getting it together. What can I do to help move this process along?”

Before the strike began two weeks ago, her son Alejandro’s bus picked him up from their home in Corona, Queens, at 6:40 a.m to take him to P.S./I.S. 49 in Middle Village. His 10- and 13-year-old siblings walked to school in the neighborhood, and his three-year-old sister spent the day with her grandmother. That gave Uruchima, who works in nonprofit management, plenty of time to get to her job in Brooklyn by 8:30 a.m.

Now, with most yellow buses off the streets because of a labor dispute between bus companies and drivers, Uruchima must accompany Alejandro to and from school. He has a learning disability and cannot take public transportation alone. All together, Uruchima’s round-trip commute takes eight buses and four trains, and she has been spending nearly half her workday in transit, using personal and sick time to make up for the lost hours. But those days are running out.

Here’s the route they’ve taken daily since the strike began:

Together, Uruchima and Alejandro take the 7:10 a.m. bus. When the bus is late, Uruchima says, Alejandro misses part of the morning tutoring program that helps him keep up in his classes.

They transfer twice and arrive at school by 8 a.m.

Uruchima takes a bus and two subways to get to work in Brooklyn by 9:15 a.m., then does the same commute in reverse, leaving work at 1:45 p.m. to make it to P.S./I.S. 49 by 3 p.m. She and Alejandro take three buses home.

Uruchima has been searching for a solution since day one of the strike, knowing that if it continued, she would be stuck between two bad options: putting her job in jeopardy and keeping her son out of school.

Uruchima brought Alejandro to school in a cab for the first few days of the strike, but it was a strain to front the money and wait to be reimbursed by the Department of Education. More than a week into the strike, the department rolled out a plan to help parents bill the cost directly to the city, but accessing that option brings its own complications, so Uruchima stuck with the bus.

If she could pick up Alejandro just a few hours later, she thought, she might be able to make things work. That would let her spend more than four and a half hours a day in her office in between commutes. She asked the school’s parent coordinator if Alejandro could join the after-school program.

“At the end of this week, I will have used up my personal days,” Uruchima said on Tuesday. “What then? I have no idea…I haven’t heard anything form the school at all. I’ve been the one reaching out to them, saying, what are the options you guys can provide me for him to stay there?”

For the first two weeks, Uruchima said, she was told that the school couldn’t put him in the after-school program because of uncertainty about how long the strike would last.

Uruchima was seriously considering having her son spend the day at home with his grandmother. In anticipation of absences due to the strike, schools across the city are posting material online, and Uruchima figured she could go through the materials with her son when she got back from work.

“Pretty much he would have to wait for me to come home to give him those instructions that they have online on the Department of Education,” she said.

Then, this morning, the school agreed to enroll Alejandro in an after-school program that lasts until 6 p.m. But that’s a band-aid solution reached by a creative parent and a single school. So while Alejandro’s attendance and his mother’s job are safe for now, but many other parents across the city whose children can’t travel on public transportation alone still face the lose-lose decision Uruchima did until today.

Alejandro’s school’s solution reflects the strategy the city is using at this point in the strike. As Chancellor Dennis Walcott wrote in a message to principals on Tuesday, “We have shifted from broad initial preparations to more tailored options for students disproportionately affected by the absence of bus service.”

Recognizing that many parents are still stuck, the special education advocacy community is ramping up pressure on Mayor Bloomberg to find a way to end the strike. Public Advocate Bill de Blasio has called a press conference for Tuesday afternoon.

The strike shows no sign of ending. Mediation efforts have failed, and the National Labor Relations Board ruled today that the strike is legal and can go on.

Uruchima counts herself lucky for her new schedule: She’ll leave at 7 a.m., get home at 8 p.m., and spend nearly four of the 13 hours in between commuting until the bus strike ends.

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.