Parents push for student transportation without cars

Each morning at 9 a.m. sharp, Dominic Tomas ushers his daughters, a kindergartner and a second grader at Cleveland Elementary School, out of their home on Madrid Street, and the trio begins their eight-minute commute on foot.

Tomas said he is lucky to be the father of two avid walkers — and to live within five blocks of the Excelsior District school.

“I don’t mind walking, and they actually like it. It’s our morning thing. I always tell them, ‘I’m gonna drive you guys. And they’re like, ‘We want to walk!’ That’s fine with me,” Tomas said.

Once his children age out of Cleveland, Tomas plans to keep them together — enrolled at the same middle school nearby — for his convenience and for their safety.

While the San Francisco Unified School District and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency have partnered around a series of initiatives that encourage walking, biking and using public transit as viable alternatives to driving their kids to school, a lingering angst around safety and a lack of reliable public transportation options for parents have resulted in more cars and less diversity at some of The City’s schools.

SEE RELATED: From new school buses to bike rides, SFUSD close to revamping kid transit

A resolution approved by the Board of Education in 2015 calls on the school district to bring down the percentage of single-family car trips to 30 percent by 2030 — and school and transportation officials are currently evaluating the steps needed to reach that goal.

Data shows more than half of the SFUSD’s K-5 students are being driven to school by their parents or caregiver. Those parents who spoke with the San Francisco Examiner about their daily commutes echoed low confidence in The City’s public transportation systems, sharing concerns about safety, tardiness and equity.

Currently, students are assigned to schools through a choice process that “seeks to increase educational opportunities for students in our underserved neighborhoods,” according to SFUSD spokesperson Gentle Blythe.

“Bus routes have been designed to support this effort, as students don’t necessarily go to school in their neighborhood,” she said. “Similarly, Muni provides school trippers, buses running on regular routes and open to the public but with run times aligned to support the school start time at middle and high schools.​”

But for some parents of young children, like Tomas, leaving their kids to commute independently would only be an option on a designated school bus. His children will not ride Muni alone until “seventh or eighth grade,” he said.

“It would give parents a little more peace of mind to know that there’s somebody to supervise in the buses,” Tomas said.

Designated yellow school buses have systematically disappeared from The City’s streets since 2010 due to budget cuts. Today, only 25 buses service the district’s some 2,000 general education students.

“That has had a serious impact on many families in terms of needing to drive farther and in the schools that they can choose,” said Board of Education Commissioner Matt Haney. “Some families may have access to transportation which allows them to attend schools that other families cannot access.”

Haney said the district is currently mulling over its student assignment system — a consideration could be re-prioritizing students who live near schools to cut down on commutes.

“One of the things we will look closely at is how to support families in accessing the schools that are closest to them and most convenient,” Haney said.

“Enhancing the quality of education at schools” to generate interest in schools located close to where families live is one goal for the district, he said, adding that more general education school buses could be an option in addressing families’ transportation troubles.

At Cleveland Elementary School, bilingual English specialist Sandra Vega described how the “bus cuts” have impacted families’ mobility and school choices.

Students at Cleveland Elementary School participate in Walk and Roll to School Day, traveling from the Excelsior Playground to their campus on Oct. 4. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

According to Vega, some 80 percent of Cleveland’s students qualify for the free or reduced lunch program, 66 percent are enrolled in the school’s bilingual education program and 85 percent of the student body is Latino.

“These are the families — I feel bad saying it — but they get stuck in this neighborhood,” Vega said.

Before the budget cuts, the school had a designated bus that would shuttle students enrolled in the school’s bilingual language program from a stop at Cleveland to Herbert Hoover Middle School.

When Cleveland lost the bus service, enrollment in the program “began changing,” Vega said.

“Our kids ended up dropping out of the bilingual program,” Vega said. “[The parents] are not going to send their kids across town on Muni.”

Blythe, of the school district, said the bus stop was cut in the 2013-14 school year and incorporated with San Francisco Community Alternative School two blocks up from Cleveland during a redesign, adding that there were “several underutilized buses prior to the redesign.”

Linda Antoine is a mother of four who lives in the Bayview District. Each morning, she drives her three high school students to two different schools in the Mission District, but first she drops her second grader off at George Washington Carver Elementary school in the Bayview, a few blocks from where the family lives.

She said she drives all of her kids to school because of concerns about safety and tardiness.

“People beat you up on the [Muni] buses,” Antoine said. “I’m for a [yellow school bus] 100 percent. We know our kids are going to get to school.”

It takes her children longer to leave the Bayview using public transportation than by car, she said. “You know why the Bayview-Hunters Point has so many tardy kids? Because the kids have been pushed so far out that they have to come in on buses and BART and so forth.”

Antoine said she isn’t necessarily against having her children enrolled in the Bayview, as long as schools there match the education and safety standards of other schools.

“If I send my kids to a suburban area, it’s like a totally different life. If they want something, the PTA moms, they get what they want,” she said.

Antoine has advocated for road safety improvements, including speed bumps and school zone signage, near Carver since her youngest started there, she said — to no avail.

The school is located at the end of a cul-de-sac, connected to a three-way intersection at Keith Street and Oakdale Avenue. Cars speed through the intersection daily, threatening the safety of students and the school’s crossing guard, she said.

Not a single “school zone” road sign is located at or leading up to the intersection to warn drivers of what Antoine calls a “blind school,” because the building is not immediately visible for drivers passing it on both Oakdale Avenue and on Keith Street.

Within 10 minutes, the Examiner witnessed several cars, a Muni bus and a city-owned truck all failing to halt at the designated stop signs, stopping instead in the middle of the crosswalks, if at all.

“We are waiting until that day comes that we have to put our kids in the hospital. I think that’s wrong,” Antoine said. “I want to make this community safer. We can’t keep being a theory.”

S.F. Examiner Staff Writer Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez contributed to this report.

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