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CPS says it cannot promise busing for all students as deadline to accept selective enrollment schools is extended

For months, students attending some of the city’s most selective schools have traversed Chicago, taking buses, trains and carpools sometimes as early as 5 a.m., to show up on time for school — and the district is telling parents they may have to continue to find their own transportation into next school year.

Faced with continuous pleas from parents upset with the district’s lack of busing for students, Chicago Public Schools is giving families an additional week to decide whether to enroll in magnet and selective enrollment schools for next school year.

But families don’t have time to wait to see if the district will provide much-needed and previously promised busing said Laura Leon, who has a grandchild attending Inter-American Magnet School in Lakeview.

“We need to know what we’re going to do for next year,” Leon said. “We can’t wait until a week before school starts.”

Leon’s grandchild is one of thousands of district students in general education classrooms who lost busing in August and had to find alternative methods to get to school from their home neighborhoods, often miles away.

CPS CEO Pedro Martinez warned Thursday that busing “may not be possible” for students next year. This means that after a rigorous application process, some students might have to pass on attending some of the top-performing public schools because of where they live.

“We cannot afford to live in Lincoln Park or Lakeview,” Leon told the board.

Martinez said CPS is extending the deadline for students to accept magnet or selective enrollment school placements for the 2024-25 academic year by one week to be upfront to families as the district continues to grapple with a lack of bus drivers.

“We need (parents) to understand (busing) might not be available,” he said at the monthly Board of Education meeting Thursday.

Students will have until April 19 at 5 p.m. to accept placements, instead of the previous deadline of April 12. Invitations to high schools were released last month, and elementary school selective enrollment placements will be released to families Friday.

Martinez said the district’s goal is to provide “the most busing possible” and the school system is “exploring all options” to hire more drivers and reinstate previous service.

As of Thursday, the district is transporting around 8,700 students with special needs or living in temporary housing across about 1,100 bus routes, Martinez said. That number is up from 8,200 in January, as the district accommodates transportation requests as they receive them.

For more than seven months, the district has not provided busing services for roughly 5,500 general education students across the magnet and selective enrollment schools. Some of their parents have repeatedly told the district they are commuting for up to four hours a day to get children to their classrooms, risking their jobs and tiring out their kids in the process.

As of last school year, more than 75% of high school students and about 44% of elementary students attended schools outside of their neighborhood boundaries. Historically, students at magnet and selective enrollment schools have received busing regardless of the distance between their home and school.

Members of the parent volunteer group say the loss of busing disproportionately impacts low-income and minority students, particularly those who have working parents and cannot afford pricey third-party ride-share services to school.

District data shows that white and Asian students disproportionately attended CPS’ selective enrollment schools as of last year. Meanwhile, Black students disproportionately attend neighborhood schools long starved of investments, officials and community organizers said at a board meeting in December.

Students attending their neighborhood schools are also not receiving busing but typically have shorter commutes or can walk to school.

On Wednesday, roughly half of the City Council signed a letter calling on the Chicago Board of Education to provide transportation stipends and take steps to reinstate transportation.

CPS Parents for Busing, a parent volunteer group formed in the fall, sent the letter to the board on behalf of the aldermen.

Ald. Nicole Lee, 11th, who represents the Bridgeport area, said many students in her ward attend neighborhood elementary schools before testing into selective high schools.

Lee said she signed the letter after consulting with parents in her ward and hearing stories of some families who moved out of the community to try to be closer to their children’s school.

“We know that schools are anchors in children’s lives, so choosing a child’s education because there’s no more transportation, it’s a really big decision,” said Lee, whose son attends Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, on the Near West Side.

In the near future, Lee said she hopes the letter can be a starting point for a “longer conversation” between City Council and CPS.

Last month, hundreds of parents and their children protested downtown outside City Hall wearing school bus-yellow shirts to call attention to the issue and using the symbolism of the traditional yellow bus to drive home their message.

The district has for months cited an ongoing bus driver shortage since its initial August letter to parents about the decision to halt busing, leaving parents scrambling for transportation. Despite increased wages and hiring fairs offered by the district, drivers were still in short supply in December, leading to discontinued busing into the 2024 spring semester.

At Thursday’s board meeting, parents criticized the low number of students riding buses to school, with the average bus transporting fewer than 10 students.

“There are enough seats,” Kenwood Academy parent Paul Wargaski said to the board at Thursday’s meeting. “8,700 students across 1,100 routes average out to eight students per route.”

One of the solutions parents propose in the letter signed by aldermen is to create “hubs” for general education students to be picked up on bus routes with seats available before picking up special education students, who must be transported to school in less than 60 minutes under state law.

The district said it has faced “logistical and equity issues” with the suggestion.

“Hubs would work for some but not all routes, thus not serving all families and schools in an equitable manner, but, again, we will continue to explore all options for the coming school year,” district spokesperson Mary Ann Fergus said in a statement.

The district is providing stipends to more than 3,700 families with students with disabilities but has said providing stipends to general education families is not sustainable, citing a projected $391 million budget shortfall.

aguffey@chicagotribune.com