A glitchy start to the school year

Missing schedules, non-orientation orientations, and a school-bus mixup that led to an insider tip for all of us.

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Missing schedules, non-orientation orientations, and a school-bus mixup that led to an insider tip for all of us.

The first bad sign came in mid-August, when students at West Seattle High School were told they wouldn't get their class schedules during orientation week, as usual. Instead, they would receive them on the morning of the first day of school. Teen panic ensued, and a few of the more persistent students phoned, emailed and cajoled their way into getting "early" versions over Labor Day weekend.

Next for some Westside parents came the annual "Ice Cream Social" at Madison Middle School, where students usually receive their schedules, parents visit classrooms, and hyperactive pre-teens zip around the "commons" area, high on sugar and the excitement of seeing their friends. Sorry, families were informed, schedules won't be out until the first day of school. No sense visiting classes to meet teachers.

That was a big bummer for the kids, who were anxious to see how many classes they had with their friends. Then they found out they weren't even getting ice cream, but popsicles. Horrors! Could it be the district's health kick had really gone that far? Was this a money-saving move?

With all of that dis-orientation, it was no surprise in my own neighborhood (near West Seattle's "Morgan Junction") that school-bus transportation assignments never arrived in the mail, as they usually do near the end of summer break. No sweat, my neighbors and I figured: We always drive the kids in the morning anyway; they could just catch the bus home after Day One of school. 

We figured wrong.

It turns out this group of kids lives on the edge of a 2-mile radius of bus service provided to middle-schoolers throughout Seattle Public Schools. A neighbor two doors down from me — closer to the school — was told the district considers her house to be 1.96 miles from school (Mapquest tells me my house is 2.43 miles, but school officials say they use bus-route maps for their measurements.)

Tom Bishop, the district's transportation manager, said that last year our kids received bus service only because the district had some extra space and decided to be generous. But parents were never told that. And this year, we weren't told the space had disappeared. Instead, a bunch of 12-year-olds were refused bus rides after school, given vouchers for Metro buses and told to walk to a Metro stop a couple blocks from school.

That stop, unfortunately, is a few blocks "downstream" from the high-school stop, and every bus that passes by is already full of big kids. Some bewildered tweeners walked home a couple of miles; others walked until someone they knew pulled over and offered them a ride.

This was, admittedly, no disaster — far from a kindergartner sent home on the wrong bus, a seemingly perennial screwup that didn't surface on any TV news broadcasts this year. Still, district officials acknowledged a few mistakes, the biggest a lack of communication.

"We have not in the past notified people when their bus service is canceled. And that is unfortunate," said district spokeswoman Teresa Wippel. "That is definitely something we need to address."

Bishop said many bus-route adjustments were made this year because of changes in the district's school-assignment plan. The good news, he said, is that a renewed focus on neighborhood schools has allowed for much more efficient transportation, meaning fewer buses. The bad news is that has stranded some students on the edges of service boundaries.

But Bishop offered an inside tip (or at least one that isn't widely publicized): Anyone who hopes to receive "space-available" transportation, as it's called, can apply between now and Oct. 1, when the district tallies its official enrollment by school. To apply, print the form at this site, fill it out and mail it to the district at the address listed on the site.

It also appears if you make a big enough stink, you can beat the Oct. 1 date. That's what my neighbor did, and Bishop said he had found a spot on a bus for her son. He also had asked her for the names of her affected neighbors. Full disclosure: That group includes me and my son.

As for those delayed class schedules, it seems the new assignment plan played a role there too. At West Seattle High, they were delayed because of increased enrollment as well as a turnover of the principal and other administrative staff. At Madison, the culprits were last-minute enrollment changes and "other operational issues," Wippel said.

That leaves just one remaining mystery left unsolved, and it'll have to wait for another day: Whatever happened to the ice-cream part of that Ice Cream Social?


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