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A Nightmare Commute : For La Canada Students, Scariest Part of School Is Getting There

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Way up in the snowy forest above Los Angeles, 9-year-old Sean Meyers is haunted by a nightmare about a school bus.

“I had a dream that the bus went off the side of the road,” the fourth-grader shyly recounted, ". . . It was snowing very hard, and you couldn’t see anything.”

For Sean and 22 other children who live high in the mountains of Angeles National Forest, the storms hitting Southern California make for the kind of commute that bad dreams are made of. Just after dawn each weekday, these children of U.S. Forest Service employees, ski resort staff and Caltrans workers gather in the frigid morning to start a school bus ride that takes at least an hour down treacherous mountain roads to the schools in La Canada Flintridge.

“This is the worst,” said Dan Dodge, director of transportation for the La Canada Unified School District. “There’s mudslides, snow, sheet ice, rockslides, you name it.”

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For four of the first six school days this year, the children were stuck at home; the bus could not make the trip past the barrage of snow, rain and mudslides.

But it was worse on Thursday, when the bus finally was able to make the trip again. The usual route of Angeles Crest Highway was still closed, so the bus was forced to take the long way around the San Gabriel Mountains--on Lower Big Tujunga Canyon Road, to Angeles Forest Highway, to Upper Big Tujunga Canyon Road, then back on the highway--a grueling, nausea-inducing two hours each way.

The winter months are particularly fearsome, when the roads are as slippery as an ice rink, when boulders bigger than the bus shake loose in the heavy snow, when even experienced mountain drivers in four-wheel vehicles can spin 360 degrees on a slick patch of road. And there are speeding commuters from the Antelope Valley on what locals dub “The Palmdale 500,” or Angeles Forest Highway, which meets the school bus route.

At times, it is a scary ride for students, who range from second graders to high schoolers.

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“I don’t want to crash,” said Megan Sheehan, 12, who lives in the Chilao area, 10 miles from the Kratka Ridge ski area. Her mother is general manager at the Waterman ski area. “If we slip on ice . . . Whoa, I don’t know.”

There are longer school bus rides in the county--such as Antelope Valley Union High School District’s 100-mile run each way on flat land--but perhaps none as treacherous, transportation officials say.

“That La Canada run sounds pretty miserable,” said Chuck Holmes, transportation and planning officer for the Los Angeles County Office of Education. “I think it’s as difficult as things can get here in California.”

At times, the children arrive late for school--which they never seem to mind. Occasionally, school officials pull the kids out of class so that the bus can leave early to beat an anticipated storm.

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Once, Cheryl Eul, whose three sons ride the bus, watched the school bus slide sideways on the icy road in front of her house and glide to a stop, barely avoiding a gate.

“Every day, I worry,” said Eul, an artist, who lives in the Chilao area with her husband, a Caltrans supervisor for the Angeles. “Every single day, I say a prayer.”

Dodge understands the anxiety. For eight years while he lived in the forest, three of his children rode the same school bus everyday.

And now, each stormy day means a 4:30 wake-up call for him to figure out whether to send the school bus up. He calls Caltrans, the Highway Patrol and parents; sometimes, he drives up the mountains himself to check the roads. After he makes the decision, he calls one parent, who sets into motion a phone tree to the other parents.

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District officials are quick to cancel the bus if the roads are bad. They point out that in 14 years of shuttling students up and down the mountains, the bus has never had an accident or even a close call.

Bus driver Jesus Munoz, who started the job in September, said the forest’s icy roads do not bother him. Every day, Munoz signs off on a 60-point maintenance checklist before he gets under way. The bus is equipped with a heater, snow tires, seat belts and chains; twice a year, it gets new tires.

Still, it is a punishing bus ride that no parents would wish on their children if the district’s schools were not so good. La Canada students’ standardized test scores have ranked in the top 2% in the state, and 98% of the district’s high school students go on to college.

Students mostly complain about the long day. Most are up at 5:30 a.m. and in bed by 8:30 p.m. They do not get home until 4 p.m., just as the winter sunlight is disappearing from the sky.

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On a recent morning, at 6:45, 13-year-old Juliette Viertel waited for the bus at Barley Flats, near an embankment with 1 1/2 feet of snow, just after the sun lit up the canyons in brilliant tangerine hues. Juliette was jacketless, in a slip dress with a beige T-shirt and white hiking boots.

As the bus pulled up, she scampered toward it, her backpack in tow. She did not get far. On the icy black asphalt, she fell with a shriek, landing hard on her knees.

Undaunted, the eighth-grader dabbed at the bleeding cuts on her knee with a tissue and put on stereo headphones, bopping to the rocking sounds of April’s Motel Room. Despite the fall, Juliette says the slick roads do not bother her.

“We get used to it,” she said, and smiled wryly. “Sometimes, if we’re lucky, the bus is late, and we miss first period.”

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