Grant gives Pittsburgh homeless students bus access

Mapping system to aid transport

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Under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, school-aged children who find themselves displaced from their homes have the right to be transported back to their original schools even if their families end up living across town in a homeless shelter or doubled-up with relatives.

For the most part, that right is preserved by local districts. But sometimes the effort requires placing students in taxis for long rides or making them use Port Authority buses with multiple transfers.

"Eventually the school districts always find a way, but it's expensive and many times there are delays of one, two, three weeks or more before the accommodations can be made," said Bill Wolfe, executive director of the Homeless Children's Education Fund.

As a result, the fund is working with the Pittsburgh Public Schools, with the help of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, to identify some existing school bus routes that may be used to transport homeless students to and from their schools of origin within the city. The effort is being funded by a $25,000 grant from the Buhl Foundation.

The delays occur because districts sometimes don't have buses or drivers to make the trips or have trouble getting cab drivers who have the required clearances for transporting school children. In addition to the delays, the transportation services become costly for districts with large homeless populations.

Pittsburgh Public Schools spent about $500,000 to transport 345 homeless students back to their schools of origin this year, said Ted Vasser, the director of pupil transportation.

Initially Mr. Wolfe had hoped to get the transportation directors of all 43 school districts in Allegheny County working together on the project, but complications prevented that from happening. District officials have raised liability and procedural questions about students from other districts riding their buses and students of various age groups being placed in the same buses.

Those objections have somewhat sidelined large-scale cooperation.

However, the Catholic Diocese has provided the children's fund with a list of buses from school districts throughout the county that transport students to Central Catholic and Oakland Catholic high schools.

The children's fund, with the help of a vendor, is using that information to build a mapping model of the bus routes that take students to Oakland Catholic and Central Catholic.

If successful, the effort would provide shorter, safer rides to school for homeless students and reduce costs for Pittsburgh and other districts. It also could serve as a model for further consolidation of pupil transportation services throughout the county, Mr. Wolfe said.

In the 2011-12 school year, state statistics provided by school districts show there were 1,700 homeless children in Allegheny County, Mr. Wolfe said. But there are no numbers on how many needed to be transported to home schools.

Ronald Bowes, assistant superintendent for policy and development for the diocese, said his schools provided the transportation information to help the homeless students and also to help save money for all districts transporting students.

"It's incredibly complex and it's difficult, but thinking down the road you may be able to save the taxpayer a lot of money if the school districts cooperate," Mr. Bowes said.

When a homeless student moves to another school district for temporary housing after being displaced, it's the responsibility of both the home district and the school district in which the temporary housing is located to provide and pay for transportation.

When homeless shelters in Pittsburgh fill up, Mr. Vasser said, city families sometimes end up in shelters in Tarentum or Clairton, which are far from the Pittsburgh schools. Other families end up living with relatives in locations that might be far from the children's school or schools.

"When that happens, we send transportation. But it's sometimes difficult to find a vehicle for that child even with working with other districts. Each individual case has its own individual sets of how complicated it could be," Mr. Vasser said.

He said the model currently being devised by the children's fund will give "everybody a bird's eye view of what can be done to make things more effective and efficient within the county and we will be able to create conversation between all of the districts and transportation directors and superintendents."

Fred Thieman, president of the Buhl Foundation, said his organization is funding the effort in hopes that it will reduce transportation costs for school districts, which will allow more money to be spent in the classroom.

"We think this is a good first step and it provides the pilot opportunity for districts to build a level of trust that can lead to the next level of cooperation," Mr. Thieman said.

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Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.


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