Friday, September 07, 2007

Hazing the BPS Parents

Pamplona has its festival, as does Boston. Somewhat like the running of the bulls, the regular hazing of the Boston Public School families continues. A big difference of course is that the buffoons who risk goring by half-ton animals do so by choice.

As a fervent believer in public education, I have endured and largely bested the worst school and School Committee officials have thrown at me. My oldest went through and I have a senior and ninth grader. Through moving to be in the right districts in the old days, visits and other research, and every technique we could use, we have found the good schools among the detritus here and ended up with three kids in advanced work classes and exam schools getting an education at least as good as prep schools'.

Many parents were not so dogged, savvy or perhaps lucky.

Making It Hard

In the process, we benefited from the foolish parents who take their walk-zone schools over vastly superior ones. There are huge discrepancies from one school to the next.

We enjoyed the theater of a purple-faced screeching Michael Contompasis when he was Boston Latin School headmaster, and of the pretentious, luxury-store-bag displaying, foot-stomping Cornelia Kelley who followed him. Also, we almost always failed to get information from the School Committee in person or on the phone. If we saw or spoke to someone at all, each person seemed to make up the answers, which were generally incorrect.

There were a few boy-hating teachers and some that weren't all that bright, but most schools have those. Yet, comparing notes with parents elsewhere, we conclude that Boston is better at discomforting and inconveniencing parents.

After that prolonged wail, the proper response is, "It should not be that hard."

Indeed, considering Horace Mann's ideal of public education as the great equalizer, we are still waiting and working for that. We still see far too many mediocre minds leapfrogging into management and leadership by connections from their rich kids' schooling. The ideal of a meritocracy remains distant as the brightest work for the feeble far too often. Such is our hidden hereditary aristocracy.

We Don't Need No Stinkin' Buses!

Back to the hazing, today let us consider the inelegant dance that one must perform for school transit. Over the past two weeks, we have experienced many variations on the I-don't-know or I-can't-be-bothered. It shouldn't be that hard.

The script includes:
  • Our youngest is a ninth grader at Boston Latin Academy.
  • For the past two years, a yellow bus generally stopped sort of in the neighborhood to take him. At just 14, he is supposed to find his own way and get a T pass to do so.
  • Our "***OFFICIAL RANSPORATION NOTIFICATION***" read that kids were supposed to find their own way by T on the opening day and would get a student T pass that day.
  • It suggested using the MBTA site for a route. Plugging in the from and to addresses produced three routes, from 44 minutes to well over an hour, with three our four combinations of bus and train, and the train stops are two of the city's roughest and busiest -- Dudley and Jackson.
  • The transportation and school hot line numbers provided were constantly busy, likely with other parents being kept ignorant for their hazing.
  • Because my BLS student has the option of a special T bus to school, I figured BLA did. While that was true, between them, the T and BPS had not informed the inspectors at Forest Hills what day this would start and whether it would be from the upper or lower level.
  • Despite the best efforts of the school system to foil me, I did find a very helpful inspector at Forest Hills, who gave me enough information about how it worked the last school year. My youngest and I showed up at the right time and by keeping checking top and bottom eventually connected with the bus (lower level, berth 8, 6:47 a.m.).
  • He came home yesterday without a T pass. I drove him to BLA this morning, located the bus dispatcher there and found that his homeroom teacher had neglected to hand them out. I had to apologize to my son, because I had assumed that he, not the teacher, was not paying attention.
It shouldn't be that hard, and this is the simple stuff.

When I was dealing in person with the Forest Hills crew, I found several helpful and nice inspectors. Two even said what I was thinking. BLA is a good school with smart people. The BPS transportation department has lots of computing power and access to maps and routing information. You'd think that together, they would reflect useful reality on their **OFFICIAL TRANSPORTATION NOTIFICATION***.

Bad Old Days

Even with the yellow bus for the past two years, we were kept alert and scrambling by the school's transportation department. They were unable and unwilling to be consistent in the pickup spot.

I won't even get into the stop choices. The bus passed less than half a block from our house, but the kids had to walk a half mile to the designated stop. Numerous other yellow buses stopped at the foot of our hill, but they couldn't set our bus' stop there for our then 12-year-old. I didn't mind the half mile walk for him and me, but the illogic was troublesome.

The printout we got read that the bus would pick up children on Hyde Park Avenue below Walk Hill Street. Instead, from the first day, the normal pickup stop was on Walk Hill east of Hyde Park.

The fronts of the buses at one of these stops are not visible from the other. There are dozens of buses that come to these corners in a very short time. In addition, if a child were to stand on the corner, ready to run to the right location, it would be across four lanes of traffic at the intersection, almost always with no cross signal and constant cars from several directions.

The fun came two ways. First, if the driver was off, the substitute kept to the original route, stopping at Hyde Park. Of course, you had no way of knowing in advance when there would be a substitute driver. Second, the school transit folk make ordinary bureaucrats look like freethinkers.

Calls and discussions took many times to get through, and then in a real sense you never got through. The folk on the other end would locate and recite the route as though what was on paper had to be reality...repeatedly. When pressed that the driver decided that Walk Hill was quicker, safer and more efficient (I agree), the bus guys wanted to get written permission from the parents involved to "change" where the bus stopped.

The logic that they needed to change the route in the computer so that substitutes would come to the regular stop was impossible for them to comprehend. The fact that all the parents already sent their kids to Walk Hill was irrelevant to them. The other alternative of having the bus stop on the northern side of Hyde Park, where some other school buses stop and where kids on Walk Hill could see the bus and the driver could see them was deemed too difficult too.

Through the two years, reality remained what was on their route sheet, regardless of the corporal and vehicular world. I kept hoping to find a reasonable problem solver there. I suspect if any ever worked for the school transportation department, it was a short tenure.

The effect was numerous mornings when no bus appeared on Walk Hill. The transportation folk suggested that if a driver came to an empty bus stop that should have eight kids, he should look after crossing Walk Hill to see if they are there. That never happened.

Each year, numerous mornings brought a call from a kid with a cell phone saying that the bus didn't show yet again. There were seven such times last year. We would drive kids the two and one-half miles to school. Sometimes I felt quixotic and would discuss it with the bus dispatcher at BLA. He'd complain for me, but there would be no change from his pressure either.

Relief in Sight

There are four more years of BPS. I shall then have finished my duty in support of my belief in public education. It is occasionally (after the fact) amusing to have hundreds of tales of incompetence and indifference or worse after three kids in BPS. In fact, it makes me wish that such hazing was malicious, not stupid. The people running the BPS shouldn't be dummies.

New Superintendent Carol Johnson has just started. She makes squishy promises about better education in schools. Maybe it's too early to let her know that the hazing rituals parents suffer every year cause a hell of a lot of anxiety and inconvenience. I hope the pod people inside the School Committee building don't take over her body and make her one of them.

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Anonymous said...

Thank you for validating the fact we're not alone!

I realize the zone system makes school busing incredibly complex in this town (it's amazing how many buses go in all four directions past my daughter's stop), but, just, GRRRR!

Anonymous said...

Incredible! Wow. With situations like that, I often try to imagine, "And what if I didn't read English?" or "What if I had three jobs?"

Why such a high barrier to entry for a public school?

Sarah said...

Great post! (Found you through universalhub) And kudos to you for supporting our public schools. I live in Roslindale and catch my husband reading the realty listings in Brookline.

Anonymous said...

I'm a substitute teacher for the BPS. Most of my work is at BLA. I've subbed on days when students need their T passes, and I have been unable to distribute them because the office neglected to inform me of that fact or give me the passes with a list of studets who need them. From now on, I will nag the most responsive Assistant Headmaster and the school about passes so students like your son can get them on time.

I admire your committment to public education. People often ask me about the Boston Public Schools, and I tell folks that there are both wonderful and dreadful things happening there. One's child can get a very good education in the BPS, but one has to be a tenacious, accept-no-excuses advocate for one's child.