New school bus system faces hiccups on first week

Reading social media last week after the start of the Kenai Peninsula Borough school year, a reader might have thought kids got transported to school in the back of a Ford Model A pickup truck — which, yes, was how the lucky children of the Homer Heights School actually did get to class in 1940. Parents complained about young children getting on the wrong buses, transportation taking two hours to get home, and late pick ups and drop offs.

With the lower peninsula going to a two-tier bus system, changing start and end school times, and moving to a new contractor, school and Apple Bus officials expected some learning pains — “hiccups” was the word of the day. Going into the second week, they said improvements have been made and communication has improved between Apple Bus, local schools and parents.

“Our whole world has been flipped upside down,” said Paul Banks Elementary School Principal Eric Pederson. “We’ve got growing pains. Change is tough.”

Because of cuts to the district’s budgets over the years, it went to a two-tier bus system, from 10 buses to five, where the same bus and driver will transport elementary school children on an earlier schedule and middle school and high school students on a later schedule. That means a $664,223 savings.

Assistant Superintendent Dave Jones said that while there were a few bumps when the Apple Buses hit the road on the first day of school, it’s not uncommon for there to be issues at the start of a new year.

“The district perspective is, the start of the school year every year is always interesting, and I’ve never been part of a school year to start the year that I didn’t have a kid or two on the wrong bus that we had to figure out and get them reunited with mom again,” he said.

When it came to buses being on time, Jones said that’s where the first day could have gone better.

“I guess a concern from the district’s part was … with the new routing … we had buses that were getting to schools later that we’d like them to be there,” he said. “… When they’re not getting to school on time, the downstream effect is usually that they’re got going to get home on time either.”

“It’s not working as well as it should right now,” said Apple Bus contract manager Julie Sisco on Monday.

She admitted some buses were late, some children got on the wrong bus, and that a clunky computer map on the school district’s website didn’t work well. The change in start and end times meant conflicts like buses being on the road at the same time as shift changes at South Peninsula Hospital. By this week, the bus transportation system had improved, she said. Sisco asked parents who have concerns or questions to call her at 235-0124.

The timing is an area Apple is working on, Jones said. They’ve brought in from Kansas City a router, or someone who runs the software that generates the bus routes, to help work out the kinks, he said.

Sisco noted because of the distance on some routes, the ride will be long. One bus goes from Happy Valley north of Anchor Point to Homer, a 1 hour, 45 minute ride.

Each day during the first week of school got a bit better than the last in terms of busing, Jones said.

“When we start the year, each route has stops where we believe students are going to be,” Jones said. “And each day you run it, if you continue to get to those stops and it doesn’t have students at it, before we eliminate that stop we want to make sure there isn’t a student there.”

In some cases, it could be that a stop has no students for a while, but it turns out a parent was just making the drives for the first few weeks and the student really does use the stop, he said.

One positive to starting this year with Apple Bus, Jones said, is that they began with a full allotment of drivers right away. This wasn’t always the case with the previous bus contractor, First Student, he said.

“I was very happy with the staffing at Apple,” he said.

Jones said he appreciates parents working with schools and the districts to get issues with buses sorted out during the transition.

Because of its location on busy East End Road near East Hill Road and the of students in pre-kindergarten to second grade, all Paul Banks students ride buses, Pederson said.

“I would not want my 5-year-old kid crossing East End in the morning, especially when it gets dark,” he said.

Some schools, like Chapman in Anchor Point, were largely unaffected by the new system. Chapman Principal Conrad Woodhead there were no problems with bus ride times being longer than normal, and that if anything, the rides home in the afternoon were shorter because Chapman has been given a third afternoon bus. Chapman shares its busing with Ninilchik, Woodhead said, so it’s imperative that they are on time.

However, Woodhead said the addition of the third afternoon bus did cause some confusion among students as to which bus to take.

“Our challenge comes with … younger kids especially, who ride one bus in the morning but have to jump on a different bus in the afternoon,” he said.

This is the first time Chapman has been faced with such a situation. In an effort to get out ahead of the confusion, Woodhead said the school put colored stars in the front window of each bus, along with that bus’s number. The corresponding colored stars and numbers were also put on students’ bus notes to help them remember.

“That really helped alleviate some of that,” he said.

One other difference Chapman is facing this school year comes from the fact that busing for students going to “out-of-area” schools, or schools outside their attendance boundary, has stopped for students in grades below high school. That wasn’t necessarily a policy change on busing out-of-area kids, Woodhead said, but became impossible since the two-tiered system changed the school start times. For example, an elementary aged student living in Anchor Point can opt to attend an elementary school in Homer, and in the past could have jumped on a bus picking up older students also heading into Homer. Now, because of later start times, the buses taking high school aged kids from the Anchor Point area to Homer won’t get to Homer before the elementary schools are already in session.

The out-of-boundary change also has affected McNeil Canyon Elementary School, said Principal Peter Swanson. McNeil’s boundary runs from Spencer Road and East End Road to the bus turnaround at the end of the paved portion of East End Road.

“We’re still ironing out the details of our folks that are beyond our boundaries,” he said. “Kids who used to be able to ride to our school are not able to ride currently.”

Swanson said some McNeil students who lived in the boundary sometimes took buses to town for after-school events like swim club. In the past from 12 to 30 students would catch rides into town. This year, McNeil has about 20 students out of the area. Because McNeil’s area doesn’t have a day care center, by law the district would have to bus a child into Homer to a day care if a student went there. This year, though, no McNeil kids are in day care.

With only two buses serving McNeil, kids haven’t had trouble figuring out which bus to take, Swanson said. One child missed a stop, he said. The parent saw the bus go by and eventually got a message to the driver, but it took awhile for the bus to safely turn around and bring the child back.

Parents can still have their children attend out-of-area schools by filling out a request form, but if they are not in high school, the parents are responsible for getting them to the school of their choice. Woodhead said some parents in Anchor Point have opted to do just that since their kids are well established in Homer Schools.

Woodhead said this will be beneficial in the long run for his own school’s enrollment, since it’ll keep students in Anchor Point at Chapman unless parents opt to drive or turn to homeschooling.

For Chapman, though, the biggest change this year did not come in the form of busing.

“Our big adjustment was starting at 8 (a.m.) instead of 8:40 (a.m.),” he said.

At Homer High School, the adjustment has been positive.

“No complaints about 9 a.m.,” Principal Doug Waclawski said of the new time.

About half of Homer High’s students drive themselves or get rides with friends, so the bus changes weren’t as big a problem, Waclawski said.

Woodhead said that even though it was a “huge adjustment for folks,” it’ll be beneficial in the way it allows high schools to have later start times. He said other districts contemplating ways to give their high school students later start times could look to the system on the southern peninsula as a model.

“Even though it’s a little harder for us at the elementary end, I’m excited to see what that looks like in the benefits that high school’s seeing,” Woodhead said.

One other change this school year is that busing for kids going to Chapman has stopped after the “Y” on North Fork Road, or the place where North Fork splits from the turn to Nikolaevsk. Woodhead said there were three or four students who live past that mark who attended Chapman, and that their parents have to get them to the Y to be picked up by a bus. Because of this, he said some of the parents chose to homeschool this year.

Reach Megan Pacer at megan.pacer@homernews.com and Michael Armstrong at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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