Many of the city’s most vulnerable children – those living in homeless shelters and temporary housing -- are being denied buses to school, the I-Team has learned.
Under federal law, children living in shelters and temporary housing are entitled to free transportation due to their vulnerable state. But in many cases in New York City, the free transportation they get is not a big yellow school bus, but a small yellow MetroCard for long, exhausting subway trips.
“It’s not really fair,” said one mom living with her two children in a domestic violence shelter who asked that her name not be used out of privacy concerns.
That mother wakes her children at 5:30 a.m., then spends more than two hours commuting to two different schools on four different trains.
"She wakes me up too early," her 6-year-old son Zion told the I-Team.
Zion’s 11-year-old sister said she and her brother aren’t the only ones who are exhausted.
"I feel actually like my mom is being committed to all these challenges," she said. "So many people… get to get on a school bus."
Mayor Bill de Blasio has said repeatedly that homeless children are a top priority.
"When it comes to a young person who’s in a shelter it’s our mission to try and reduce the amount of disruption and tighten up the system so they are near their school," he said.
But with an astonishing 23,522 children living in homeless shelters right now, it’s understandably a challenge to keep them all close to their schools. The Department of Education won’t always create new bus routes for homeless children. They also won’t bend the five-mile limit on bus routes. That leaves many children taking the train.
Department of Education officials say that at the beginning of the school year, they offered buses to just two out of three eligible children living in shelters.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Education, Devora Kaye, said, "We have moved swiftly to address students’ and families’ requests for transportation, and we are aware of these cases and have already resolved one. We will continue to work closely with families and schools to provide all students with the appropriate transportation."
The DOE reached out the principal at Zion’s school and has added bus routes for two families there since the I-Team got involved.
"We will continue to work closely with families and schools to provide all students with appropriate transportation services," the spokesman said in a statement.
"We have students that come in who have woken up at 4:00 in the morning because their shelters are in Queens," said Emily Haberman, the social worker at the Exceed Charter Schools in Brooklyn. She said there are a dozen children at her school with long commutes and no bus.
“It's taking months to get responses back. Kids are missing a lot of school," she said.
Exceed Charter School students Savior and Keshaun Kirkland have missed 13 days of school due to a long commute before the Department of Education finally got them a school bus late last week.
They live in temporary housing. The boys’ mother, Shade Kirkland, said she’s been forced make desperate choices between picking her children up from school and completing her home health aide job training program so she can work, feed her kids and avoid homelessness.
"I’m on the verge of being in a shelter," Shade Kirkland said.
Kim Sweet of the nonprofit Advocates for Children said she sees too many families who have to battle for busing. Advocates for Children is funded by New York state to fight for the needs of poor children in public school.
"So if the difference between a MetroCard and a bus is being able to get a child to school in the morning, then the city needs to really provide busing where it’s needed," she said. "There is nothing more frustrating than seeing a family that is working so hard to sustain their child’s education. They are climbing up such a mountain."