1,500 CPS students with special needs still lack bus service four months into the school year

WBEZ
Chicago Public Schools says its busing problems are caused by a national shortage of bus drivers. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
WBEZ
Chicago Public Schools says its busing problems are caused by a national shortage of bus drivers. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

1,500 CPS students with special needs still lack bus service four months into the school year

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It’s four months into the school year and Chicago Public Schools is still trying to secure transportation for about 1,500 students with special needs, according to a school district “corrective action” plan sent to the Illinois State Board of Education last week.

The plan does not lay out a date by which it expects all students to have a bus ride. In October, CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said the goal was to have bus service for students by early January.

Advocates are unhappy with what CPS has put forward.

“What they submitted to the state board as their plan is largely non-responsive,” said Miriam Bhimani, a special education advocate. “It is a regurgitation of what they’ve been trying to do — to no success.”

The Chicago Board of Education is expected to discuss a resolution Wednesday that calls for a progress report from district officials on “an action plan” to get transportation for all special needs students and homeless students by the end of January. The resolution also prioritizes transportation for those students.

Priority would start with students with special needs and temporary living situations, followed by students in general education based on income and other students in magnet, selective enrollment, or other programs. CPS provides transportation for roughly 10,000 students with special needs and 10,000 general education students.

CPS is required by law to transport many students with special needs. Its corrective action plan was mandated by the state after advocates filed a formal complaint with the state in September because of the lack of busing, which initially affected about 2,500 students with special needs.

Without bus service, parents have had to get their children to school on their own or on public transit. The district offered families money to help defray transportation costs. It’s using alternative transportation, like taxi cabs, for some students and helping vendors with incentives to recruit and keep drivers. A small number of students never made it to school and some students have been missing class on days when a school bus fails to pick them up.

CPS officials have blamed the busing problems on a national shortage of bus drivers and have been promising a prompt solution. At the end of October, CPS said it was adding additional companies that it expected to make a significant dent in the backlog. It also said the remaining 51 students who never made it to school all had been assigned routes.

In its state-required plan, CPS officials said it has faced several setbacks due to ongoing bus driver shortages and families who refuse to be connected with alternative forms of transportation, including taxi cabs. District officials also said they are improving their bus routing strategies and prioritizing routing students who have missed class due to busing issues.

Under the plan, CPS had to come up with detailed steps to fix the transportation issues, a system to track progress, an alternative education plan for students who are missing class due to busing issues, and a roadmap for compensatory services. CPS also needs to prioritize students with disabilities for bus routing moving forward, advocates say.

Advocates say the corrective plan does little besides summarize what district officials already have reported.

CPS said it will send instructional packets to students who have missed school, as well as take steps to improve busing. But Bhimani says it falls short for students with individualized education programs.

“A packet cannot provide access to education,” Bhimani said. “The notion that you can send out packets en masse to students with IEPs flies in the face of the individualized portion of an IEP.”

Bhimani hopes to see more oversight coming from the state.

State officials said in an email that a complaint investigator will review CPS’ corrective action documentation and issue a response. It will also provide monthly monitoring until the corrective action is completed.

Adriana Cardona-Maguigad covers education for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation and @AdrianaCardMag.