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July 20, 2005

Deaf school scales back busing, leaving some families in a bind

From: Dallas Morning News, TX - Jul 20, 2005

Arlington: Costs cited; about 30 students need to find transportation

By TOYA LYNN STEWART / The Dallas Morning News

ARLINGTON – Jamie Johnson understands why the school her daughter attends can't continue its liberal policy of transporting students from almost anywhere in North Texas to the Arlington campus.

Still, the Farmers Branch woman is disappointed that her daughter, Rebecca Johnson, a senior, might not graduate from Jean Massieu Academy, which she's attended since the ninth grade.

Officials at the academy, an open-enrollment charter school where classes are taught in American Sign Language, say they no longer have the money to provide transportation for all students.

That means that when school begins Aug. 15, there won't be bus service for families who use the door-to-door service and live in cities including Plano, Mesquite, Murphy, Frisco, The Colony, Midlothian, Saginaw and Cleburne.

About 30 of the school's more than 150 students will have to find other transportation or enroll in new schools, officials said.

"It's hard for us," said Bobby Dunivan, the business manager for the school. "We're trying to protect the school so we can continue to educate the kids.

"We have to protect the jewel of the school, and that's education."

The school receives about $29,000 a month from the state for transportation costs but spends about $50,000 monthly on fuel, maintenance, insurance and loan payments on some of the buses.

Plus, most of the buses have more than 100,000 miles on them, making the upkeep more costly, Mr. Dunivan said.

Larry Thompson, the school's transportation coordinator, said that because some students live so far away, some buses averaged about 1,000 miles per week. That means monthly oil changes for some of the 15 buses the school relies on.

"There are some students that need to come to this school, but with this financial burden, we don't have a choice," Mr. Thompson said. "We're trying to preserve the school, and this is in the best interest of the school.

Mr. Thompson said he is making personal phone calls and will send certified letters to the families who haven't been notified of the transportation changes, which were recently decided.

It's become one of those "stuck between a rock and a hard place" situations for everyone, parents and school officials said.

"I have no complaints, and I don't fault them, but we're shocked and at a loss," Ms. Johnson said.

The Johnson family is considering two options – enrolling their daughter in the Dallas school that offers services for the deaf and hearing impaired, or trying to purchase another car and helping Rebecca, 19, get her driver's license so she can drive herself to school.

Right now, neither option is favored, Ms. Johnson said.

"On one hand, I wholeheartedly support JMA's goals of giving deaf kids a bona fide start academically," she said. "On the other hand, it's a hardship."

The school opened in 1999 and was founded by 12 families, nine of them with deaf children, to create educational opportunities for their children and better meet their communication needs.

At the school, American Sign Language is the primary language, and English is the second language. The school is required by law to follow the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills curriculum. It also follows the state's testing requirements.

The academy originally opened in rented spaces in Irving and Duncanville. It purchased an old Arlington church a year ago, renovated it and began holding classes there last fall.

The school, which has students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, relies on state funding, grants and donations. There is no tuition.

The student body is economically, socially, culturally and geographically diverse; most of the students are from Dallas or Fort Worth. It includes hearing-impaired and deaf students.

Charlotte Wilhite, a board member and president of the parent-teacher association, said her family moved from Fort Worth to Arlington so they could be closer to the school when her son, Nick, enrolled three years ago.

"We have an only child and flexible jobs and the money to do it," she said. "We felt strongly enough that this was worth it to move.

"A lot of other people can't do that," said Ms. Wilhite, adding that Nick is transferring to Arlington's Martin High School because he wants to attend public school.

School officials say a handful of parents said they might be able to drive their children to the school, but that won't work for Donna Lockwood of Saginaw.

Her two sons attended the academy last school year. Daniel, 14, can hear; Benjamin, 15, cannot. She had planned for Benjamin to return, but now he won't be able to, Ms. Lockwood said, adding that she couldn't afford the fuel costs or to drive 90 minutes each way to transport her son.

Ms. Lockwood said she had hoped the school would continue to transport students who live the farthest away and ask those families who lived closer to find other options.

She had also proposed a central bus stop for families who would lose transportation. And finally, she offered to drive one of the routes if she could park the school bus in her local district's bus barn. School officials told her that liabilities and their insurance coverage wouldn't allow either of those options.

"It seems like there should be a simple solution, but there's so much red tape and so many rules," she said. "I'm very disappointed.

"My son loves it there. He has dear friends that he can communicate with in a relaxed environment, and he has great teachers. He's going to miss it."