By David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver
(Denver, Colo.) As the mother of a gifted Black student, Sophia Cocas said she experiences inequities in Denver Public Schools.
Her family can only afford a home on the outskirts of the city. But the gifted program is located at a downtown school.
That means Cocas spends a lot of time driving her three children who attend different Denver Public Schools. "My children have never attended a DPS neighborhood school and are not eligible for transportation services," said Cocas, vice-chair of the district's Black Family Advisory Council.
"Roads and traffic are filled with parents crisscrossing the metro area for our children."
While some students receive free RTD bus passes, that program is limited to upper grades. Cocas said it needs to be expanded.
Cocas wants the district to provide better transportation support. She recognizes the district struggles with a driver shortage but argues that the district should prioritize recruiting and keeping drivers.
"Help restore the fundamental idea of free public transportation for all," said Tiffany Grays, chair of the advisory council.
"DPS has largely remained inactive in seeking opportunities to solve the transportation crisis today. Lack of access to transportation for choice schools impact neighborhoods of color."
District aware of shortfalls
The district posts notices on its website about transportation shortfalls. Disclaimers warn that staff shortages and COVID restrictions mean fewer school bus routes.
That leaves parents like Cocas bottled up inside their cars with their kids for hours at a time. "We rarely make it home before dark," Cocas said. "Along with the gas, consistent car problems, it's so difficult."
Plus, she faces the "financial burden of hundreds of dollars per month in before-school care because the three schools' bell schedules do not line up," Cocas said.
Many parents have more than one child in more than one school in the system, Cocas said.
"The DPS Choice program does an excellent job of making you feel you chose the most appropriate school for your child's education, however, when we made this decision, our family was effectively punished by excluding them from transportation service."
Asking for equity
Cocas and three other Black mothers spoke before the school board last week. They have a few ideas to make things fairer:
· Reimburse parents for transporting their children to and from school.
· Offer all students free RTD passes. "There's no district-funded ride shares, there's nothing," Cocas said.
· Make data about transportation funding transparent and spend any unused money. Cocas said the district did not accept funding that would have supplied buses for the charter schools.
School board members and district staff do not respond to remarks made during public comments. They may follow up with speakers later. The district repeatedly has blamed its curtailed bussing on a staffing shortage.
Parent Deborah Jackson, who also spoke to the board, said people deserve to know how and if the district spends grant money. "We are demanding transparency and accountability for those funds from 2019 to today," she said.
Busing 'an ongoing issue'
"Bus transportation has been an ongoing issue," said Jackson, who also is a grandmother.
During the civil rights movement, she said people burned buses when they began accepting Black passengers. In 1970, two dozen empty school buses exploded in Denver after someone rigged them with dynamite. The blast wiped out two-thirds of the school bus fleet. Many speculated the explosions were motivated by integration controversies in Denver schools, according to the New York Times.
"In the case of my granddaughter, it's as though her bus has been burned again," Jackson said.
Cocas said she spends five hours shuttling three children to three different schools. Some children must wake up exceedingly early to prepare for long commutes to school. The trip home causes late dinners and leaves less time for homework, Cocas said.
District under COVID busing guidelines
But the district is running under COVID guidelines. It warned bus transportation would be an issue.
"Under the health and social-distancing guidelines for transportation, our buses will only be able to operate at 33 percent capacity," according to the school district website.
"Unfortunately, this means many students — including most middle and high school general education students — will no longer be eligible to ride the yellow bus to school.
"Eligible high school students will still be able to use a DPS-RTD bus pass. DPS will prioritize transportation for our youngest and highest-needs learners, as well as students legally entitled to transportation, such as those in special education or who are experiencing homelessness."
Click this link for a guide on checking your student's transportation eligibility.