In New Orleans, choosing a public school can mean contending with a dizzying array of choices. To help parents and students make that choice, schools are issued grades of "A" to "F" based on academic performance.
Of the seven “A”-rated schools in the entire city, only one provides yellow bus service for their students. For the rest, getting to school can be a challenge.
Amelia Slep-Patterson is a budding graphic designer at Lusher Charter’s high school. On most mornings, she wakes up at 4:45 a.m. to catch a city bus on a barren and dark street corner in Algiers.
"It’s about 5:27," says Slep-Patterson. "The bus comes at 5:35. And the sun has not risen yet."
She’s not just bothered by the dark. Sometimes, she comes across strange men. "They’re generally all adults. Not that I’m saying I’m scared of all adults, but generally they’re also all guys," she explains.
After taking the bus, Amelia walks three blocks to a streetcar. The sidewalk on Canal Street is littered with panhandlers, drunks and a slew of noxious smells.
"Back when I was still in middle school I don’t think even I would have thought about doing this much," she says. "I was nervous when I did have to take the bus. So probably not many other kids younger than me would want to do this. Not alone, anyway."
After commuting alone for two hours, Amelia finally arrives to school.
Parents at Lusher do organize and pay for a private bus service. But Amelia’s mother, Maya Miller, says it was out of her price range.
"When Amelia first started in middle school, I think it was $600 or $700 a year up front, which we couldn’t afford," Miller says.
Miller and her daughter are not alone. In some “A” schools, nearly every family qualifies for free or reduced lunch, and in others the number is 1 in 5.
Cristiane Wijngaarde and her daughter Tiani live in New Orleans East. Tiani used to attend Benjamin Franklin High School, but left when public transportation got to be too dangerous. Wijngaarde had bad experiences when she used to take the bus, and she says safety is still a problem now.
"As a parent that has been a victim of a public transportation assault on a bus, that was my worst fear, to have to put my child in the same spot where I was assaulted when I was in school at her age," Wijngaarde says.
To help other parents, Wingaarde now advocates for the campaign "Ride For Success", which says that districts that don’t provide yellow buses discriminate against low-income families.
Cheron Brylski of the East Bank Collaborative of Charter Schools says that A schools like Lusher are not insensitive to the issue.
“Lusher is aware that students and their families are making sacrifices to go to their school. It’s just that the cost of providing transportation on a citywide basis is high."
Brylski says they’d rather put money in classrooms. But Windgaarde says you can’t ask parents to make a choice between education and safe transportation.
"That’s not a fair question to ask," Wijngaarde says. "Because we want the best, we deserve the best, right? And I think the school, when they budget, they need to budget for transportation. Because, when they don’t, it’s a way of saying: you can’t cross the tracks? Then you can’t come here."
In the meantime, organizers at Ride For Success are holding fundraisers to help parents pay for the private buses they couldn’t otherwise afford.