The commute to school has gotten complicated.
Jessica Mion, 16, catches a car ride, takes a school bus, a public bus, a trolley and walks the 16 miles it takes to get between Coral Reef Senior High and her home in Coral Gables.
Carolina Bello lived by a color-coded carpooling calendar and relied on four other families to get her kids from Doral to Coral Reef.
And Luisa Torres pays $18 a week for a private school bus to take her son from their community in Doral to Doral Academy Preparatory charter school.
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“It can be a big challenge,” said Dina Weinstein, whose sons attend Coral Reef and Palmetto Middle. “We have consciously moved to a place where we have public transportation close to school.”
The push for school choice, with parents and students picking where they want to go rather than settling for what’s closest to home, often means taking the long way to school.
Choice schools — whether it’s a magnet, charter or advanced curriculum program – don’t typically provide transportation. Carpooling becomes difficult when your neighbors attend classes across the 2,000 square miles that make up Miami-Dade County. More than half of Miami-Dade students now attend a school they hand-picked.
For some, the commute is more than a hassle — it’s an impossibility that can cut a student off from the best school for his or her needs. With an eye towards equity, the Miami-Dade County school district is expanding busing options for some students when classes begin August 24. Eight schools will provide busing this year, serving 800 students, according to the district.
“We know transportation is impacting the ability of kids to get to some of these programs,” said Sylvia Diaz, an assistant superintendent overseeing school choice.
Mion’s first alarm rings at 4:50 a.m. It goes off a few more times before the Coral Reef senior drags herself out of bed to start making her way towards school.
Getting to school is the relatively easy part: Her father drops her off at a school bus the district provides at a nearby Metrorail station. But in the afternoons when her parents are working, it’s a different story.
On the way home, Mion takes a school bus or catches a car ride to the Metrorail station. Then she rides the elevated tracks to a bus stop, where she grabs a public bus — if the timing is just right. But more often, she hops on a trolley and then walks six blocks home. To lighten her backpack, she leaves her textbooks at school and makes do with looking up passages on the Internet.
The long commute — it often takes more than an hour — has been worth it to her. Mion, who speaks five languages, will graduate this fall with diplomas in International Studies and International Baccalaureate – in addition to the standard high school diploma.
“For me, it’s not even an issue any more,” she said. “It’s my choice. I chose to go to Coral Reef.”
THE CAR POOL
Word of mouth still creates the school carpool, only now the word has to travel much farther.
As her daughter was getting ready to head from a magnet middle school to a magnet high school — George Washington Carver to Coral Reef — Bello began spreading the word she was looking for carpool partners. Otherwise, the 20 mile drive from her home in Doral to the school near Pinecrest was up to her.
It seemed like the real estate agent had asked “the whole world” before a group of five families came together from the corners of Doral’s gated communities.
They met in Bello’s home to get to know each other, and a network of drivers was born. Using elaborate Excel spreadsheets, Bello assigned each family a color and a week when they were responsible for pick ups and drop offs.
“All of us who lived in Doral had that difficulty of being so far from the school, but we all wanted our kids to go to this school. So we had to make the sacrifice,” Bello said.
PAYING YOUR OWN WAY
For Luisa Torres, getting her youngest son to school means paying out of pocket for a private bus. Her eighth-grader goes to Doral Academy, a charter school that doesn’t provide transportation.
Torres often travels for her work as a broker selling paper products to Latin America — and she has carpool responsibilities for her older son. So when she was handed an advertisement for a private bus company while attending an open house event at school, she jumped on the opportunity.
“It was the best option,” she said.
THE DISTRICT STEPS IN
After her son’s cell phone was stolen, sparking school yard fights, Beatriz Cruz started looking for a way out of Carol City Senior High. She settled on Barbara Goleman Senior High, nine miles away.
But the time and cost of the commute soon became overwhelming for the family.
“My husband wanted to change [our son’s] school because of the economics, and it was hard to take him,” said Cruz, who works cleaning houses. “If a child is doing well in a school, it’s important to keep him there.”
The district stepped in with a “FLEX stop” nearby. The pilot program started last year at a handful of schools. The district looked at under-used bus routes and established stops in high-need neighborhoods.
Miami-Dade is expanding the program this year to more schools and students. The goal is to make choice programs available to all students — not just those whose parents can afford the time and expense of driving.
“It breaches the principle of equity,” said Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. “If you live in certain ZIP codes and your parents don’t have the means of getting you there, you’re shut out.”
For Bridgette Lawrence, who was taking her two children to schools in opposite directions, the bus stop was “a huge relief.” She wanted her daughter to attend the rigorous Cambridge program at Barbara Goleman, but Lawrence lost her job in hospitality and wondered how long she could keep up with the commute.
“As a parent, you want to make the right decision. You don’t want to say, ‘Man I didn’t give my child the choice they wanted.’ And transportation is a big deal,” Lawrence said.
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Miami-Dade schools that will be served by FLEX stops this year:
▪ Air Base K-8
▪ Miami Arts Studio @ Zelda Glazer
▪ Jorge Mas Canosa Middle
▪ W.R. Thomas Middle
▪ G. Holmes Braddock Sr.
▪ Miami Carol City Sr.
▪ Miami Northwestern Sr.
▪ Barbara Goleman Sr.
The district will send letters home during the first two weeks of school to inform students who are eligible for FLEX stops. You can also contact your child’s school for more information.
Source: Miami-Dade County Public Schools.