MTA Stoppage Puts Up Roadblocks for Students

Times Staff Writer

Hennisie Leath's path to a brighter future used to begin every school day at a North Hollywood MTA bus stop.

At the corner of Victory and Lankershim boulevards, the 14-year-old honor student would catch a Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus to the Red Line subway station, where she would hop on a train that would take her to another bus, which would finally deliver her to Taft High School in Woodland Hills.

Hennisie said she gladly made the three-hour, 28-mile daily round trip because she thinks that attending a program for highly gifted students at the academically well-regarded school could help her get accepted at a top college some day.

But since MTA workers went on strike more than three weeks ago, Hennisie has been stranded at home.

"My grades are dropping. I need to go to school," said Hennisie, who has been doing work assigned over the phone by her teachers. "But there's no telling when the buses will go off strike."

Although many students in the region who use public transit have found other ways to school, some, like Hennisie, are having a rough time. They live too far away to walk and find it difficult to get rides from family or friends.

Stranded students may soon get some help from the MTA, which is working to enlist parents to create carpools.

The agency sent letters to 1,800 public schools in the county this week, asking them to notify parents and collect information that the transit agency will use to organize the carpools. Depending on the number of parents who sign up and how quickly schools turn around the data, carpool matches could be made as early as next week, MTA program manager Jami Carrington said.

But some parents say that carpools are not always feasible and that a better solution would be to allow stranded children to ride school buses that already serve their neighborhoods.

"I've made over 30 calls. I've spoken with the principal, the vice principal, the district.... I've begged them: 'It doesn't have to be permanent,' " said Tracy Dixon, a single mother whose car broke down just before the strike began.

What she has asked is that Hennisie be allowed to take a school bus until the strike is over. "They just shooed me off."

Taft officials say there's not much they can do

"We really don't have the resources at the school level," Asst. Principal Gerardo Barrios said, so parents are referred to the district level.

Los Angeles Unified School District officials said they were looking into the issue.

"We are researching what we ought to do," Supt. Roy Romer said. "It's very expensive for us to re-create the MTA when we are facing a $500-million shortfall."The district provides transportation only to students in certain situations, such as magnet programs or attendance at different campuses to ease overcrowding.

Other students, such as Hennisie, voluntarily applied to attend faraway campuses with the understanding that they must find their own ways. Last year the district had more than 20,000 such students, traveling by car or public transit, enrolled somewhere other than their "home schools." Many chose schools such as Taft -- known for its high scores on standardized tests -- to seek a better education.

District officials say they already transport about 75,500 students every day in 2,200 yellow buses used by the district. "These buses are at capacity," spokeswoman Hilda Ramirez said.

Making exceptions for stranded students could also present a significant "child management and liability issue," because schools should know "what children are where at any given time," said the district's business manager, Michael Eugene.

But some parents remain skeptical.

Teri Szucs often sees half-empty yellow school buses roll past her Hollywood house -- buses that her son and others have not been allowed to ride during the transit strike. "It's just nonsense," she said.

No one tracks how many students in Los Angeles County rely on public transit to get to school. The MTA issues about 20,000 transit passes every month to K-12 students, but the passes could be used for trips outside of school. Many transit-riding students also don't buy monthly passes, using tokens or paying full fare instead.

Within the district, student absences have grown only slightly since the strike, but officials do not know whether the transit shutdown played a role.

In the two weeks before the MTA work stoppage, attendance by sixth- to 12th-graders held steady, with Tuesday and Wednesday absences averaging 6.1% and 6%, respectively, according to the school district. Absences for the same days rose to 6.8% in the first week of the strike and 6.9% in the third week. Fluctuations within 0.3% is considered normal, officials said.

Fewer than 30 of Taft's 3,500 students have missed 10 or more days since the strike began, according to school officials.

But absences might be low because some students have resorted to extreme measures, including sneaking onto yellow buses that they are not eligible to ride, or spending hours sitting in buses that navigate non-MTA bus routes and then walking for miles.

When Trevante Banks, 14, could not ride MTA buses and trains between his Baldwin Hills home and Taft, his mother took him. Then her car broke down.

"He was so desperate ... he was crying, asking family members and neighbors. But it was too far for them to drive," said Patrice Banks, who begged school officials without success to let her son ride a yellow bus until her car is repaired.

Trevante missed two days of school before finding a roundabout way to the campus on his own: taking non-striking Los Angeles Department of Transportation buses, which zigzagged more than 30 miles from Crenshaw to downtown to Tarzana. From there, he walked the remaining two miles to Woodland Hills.

The one-way trip took more than four hours, but Trevante said it was worth it because he does not want to attend the academically inferior and gang-plagued school near his home.

His third-period class was nearly over when the freshman breathlessly reached the Woodland Hills campus, where he was promptly scolded for being tardy.

After three days of using L.A. Department of Transportation buses, Trevante is now riding to school again in his mother's recently repaired 1988 Pontiac.

Patrice Banks said she didn't expect her car to last long "driving that freeway.... I'm riding on bad tires, I need a tuneup. Every day I get him there and back safely I say little prayer."

But her son's determination keeps her going. "He said the high school you attend is very important. He wants to go to a university

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