Bus won't stop here anymore
By JOSE CARDENAS
Published December 3, 2006
[Times photo: Thomas Wisenand]
Parents worry about their children making this walk to Skycrest Elementary School.
CLEARWATER - Unlike parents with more conventional work schedules, Elizabeth Salvador can't walk her three children to school.
She leaves her house at 5:30 a.m. for her job at a dry cleaner. Her husband, a plumber, leaves at 6:40 a.m.
So Veany, Azael and Karen - 10, 7 and 6, respectively - walk a short distance to Santa Rosa and Franklin streets where a bus picks them up at 7:20 a.m. and takes them to Skycrest Elementary School about 2 miles away.
But Pinellas school administrators recently told the Salvadors and their neighbors that next month they would eliminate three school bus stops serving 85 students in this small, largely Hispanic pocket northeast of Court Street and Missouri Avenue.
The reason: The bus stops are within 2 miles of the school. State law mandates bus transportation for students who live more than 2 miles away, but not closer. And now, school administrators say, recent improvements on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard have made the walk safer.
For other parents, such news might mean simply rearranging schedules to accommodate driving the kids to school.
But the parents in this immigrant community say they face bigger challenges.
Some work early shifts at hotels, restaurants and construction sites. If they couldn't find help, their children - the oldest are fifth-graders - would have to walk to school alone.
"We have to go to work," said Salvador, 29. "We would have to find somebody to help us take care of the children."
Moreover, some parents are undocumented immigrants, which means they cannot get licenses and drive legally.
So these immigrant families, who typically might be more timid, have lobbied the school district to keep the buses.
School buses previously have provided transportation to Skycrest students in that neighborhood because traffic and construction on Gulf-to-Bay made the route hazardous, said Pinellas County schools spokeswoman Andrea Zahn. But since construction ceased on Gulf-to-Bay, where safety improvements include school crossings, the district decided to eliminate the bus stops.
At the Santa Rosa and Franklin bus stop one morning, a few mothers pointed out the particular circumstances the immigrant families face.
Even now, some of the children walk to the stop alone because their parents have gone to work long before the bus comes by at 7:20 a.m., they said.
"The majority of mothers work," said Erika Caudillo, 29, whose two sons go to Skycrest. "The fathers go earlier. The ones that work on the yards, the construction, they go to work first."
Then, for some, there's the bigger issue of drivers' licenses - a longstanding hurdle for Florida's undocumented immigrants who are not eligible to get them.
The other options, the parents said, would be walking the approximate 2 miles to school, which would be doable when it's not raining, or herding dozens of students onto public buses each morning.
After parents complained, transportation officials reviewed the distance between the school and the nearest entry point to the neighborhood, Zahn said. It was less than 2 miles, and state law says students must live more than 2 miles away to be eligible for transportation.
Officials also reviewed the route, which now includes two crossing guards provided by the city of Clearwater, and determined that it is safe.
As a courtesy, Zahn said, transportation officials decided to continue the bus runs into the neighborhood until the end of this school year, but parents must make arrangements by the start of the new school year next August.
Transportation officials will have a meeting with the parents on Dec. 12. Zahn said they will listen to their concerns, but also offer tips on how parents in other neighborhoods have handled lack of buses - such as parents taking turns walking groups of children.
One day last week, parents and children walked to school, pointing to what they say are the dangers.
"More than anything we worry about their safety," said Guadalupe Cortez, 33, who has one daughter at the school "There are going to be some children who walk all the way to school alone."
Times staff writer Jose Cardenas can be reached at 445-4224 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Last modified December 2, 2006, 21:38:19]
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