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Behind the wheel of school choice

Hub bus drivers worry for future

From Monday through Friday, at the break of dawn, roughly 800 Boston school bus drivers climb into their black and yellow rigs and roar through the city's streets.

Grinding early-morning traffic to a halt, the buses stop at one street corner after another, picking up more than 40,000 students.

For drivers, it's a lifestyle that begins at 5:30 a.m. and doesn't end until 4:30 p.m., a job that many have done for more than 30 years. As this school year draws to a close, the bus drivers watch with worry and outrage as school department officials work to overhaul the system's controversial student assignment policy. They rifle through newspapers, attend community forums, and monitor every move school officials make with assignments.

The school system's goal is to reduce the $59 million spent on transportation costs, perhaps by sending students to school closer to home.

But in a city with a history of court-ordered desegregation and racial turmoil, the grandmothers, community activists, and others who make up the blue-collar crew consider themselves more than just bus drivers who may lose their jobs.

Many say they are the enforcers of school choice. They fear changes will negatively affect the children they drive to and from school. ''After all this struggle, we are coming out of desegregation to go backwards again," said school bus driver Andre Francois. ''It's unfair to minority parents. They are banning families from the good schools."

For the past six months, a task force of community leaders and educators has been gathering public input on ways to change how students are assigned to schools. It is meeting behind closed doors after recently deciding to delay a final recommendation from this month to later this summer. Members said they are sifting through more feedback from parents on eight models for revamping student assignments. School officials oppose the delay, saying it would hurt their goal to change the student assignment policy by the start of the 2005-06 school year.

For the bus drivers, many of whom could lose their jobs or face a pay reduction if a new neighborhood school policy is approved, the delay is a momentary reprieve.

''Hey, if I lose my job because they get rid of busing then I'll find another job. I have no choice," said Martin Thomas, a father of four who has driven a bus for 10 years. ''A new policy is going to be difficult for some parents because some of them are going to have to send their children [to] the worst schools. And we see them every day. We know where they are."

The possibility of a new student assignment policy also has become a topic during union meetings, shift breaks, and at home, said Steve Gillis, president of the Boston School Bus Drivers Union. Gillis, who lives in Roslindale, said his 5-year-old daughter rides a bus to the school her family picked: the Rafael Hernandez K-8 school in Roxbury. ''We, too, worry about where our kids will end up going to school. It's not just about our jobs," Gillis said.

In 1974, Boston school buses and their drivers became the target of one of the most explosive periods in Boston's history: A federal judge ordered the desegregation of Boston's public schools using busing. The ruling unleashed protests over race, equal education, and the loss of neighborhood schools. Riots erupted in the city's tight-knit communities.

Through it all, Boston's school buses continued to roll.

Navigating through bands of angry residents hurling rocks and blocking roadways, the drivers did their jobs, said Steve Kirschbaum, a school bus driver since 1974.

''It was a fight for quality education. It was a crazy time. Imagine, there were police patrols all over the streets of South Boston," Kirschbaum said.

While some drivers left the job for less chaotic employment, others felt so strongly about the fight for equal schools that they came out of retirement to help the city's students get to class, he said.

''I've been doing this for 30 years, and I still haven't stopped," said Kirschbaum, who is helping his colleagues negotiate a new union contract. Drivers' salaries vary, depending on the length of their routes. School bus drivers are paid $18.26 per hour, about $38,000 a year if they work 40 hours a week.

Today, the complexion of Boston has changed, and the school system, which was 64 percent white in 1970, is now predominately made up of minority students. Currently, whites account for 14 percent of the total student population, blacks 46 percent, Hispanics 30 percent, and Asians 9 percent.

Drivers deal with different challenges today than three decades ago, including overcrowded buses, a lack of bus monitors, and ever-changing bus routes.

Still, said Georgia Scott, a grandmother of six and bus driver for the past five years, driving kids back and forth to school is a job she wants to keep.

She begins her day at 5:25 a.m., crisscrossing through East Boston to Charlestown, Roxbury, and the South End. In the afternoon she does it all over again. ''This job is good for me because it gives me the ability to go into school and visit my grandchildren and take care of anything that needs to be done," she said.

More importantly, the Roxbury resident added, she adores the kids who pile in and out of her bus each day. ''I love my children and my parents and I have an excellent rapport," Scott said.

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