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With Chronic Absenteeism on the Rise, Why Is California Making School Transportation Harder?



A California bill seeking to further regulate school transportation could make it needlessly difficult for third-party services that support vulnerable students. (Shutterstock)
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Graduation season is always a bittersweet time for me. It serves as a reminder of all that I’ve accomplished and how proud I am of how far I’ve come. But it’s also a reminder of how close I came to not graduating from high school.

Georgina Rodriguez
Special to CalMatters

I grew up in a family that experienced homelessness. My parents, two sisters and I constantly moved from one shelter to another, struggling to find stability. Eventually, my sisters and I ended up in the foster care system. Given how much we moved around, getting to school every day was one of my biggest challenges. Transportation often prevented me from going to school.

Today, chronic absenteeism in California schools is worse than it was before the pandemic. For so many children in California, chronic absenteeism isn’t a result of not wanting to go to school – it’s simply that they can’t get there.

In California, we invest a lot of money in our school bus system, which is an essential part of the way kids get to school. But the reality is that yellow buses don’t work for every child, especially for kids in foster care. With absenteeism on the rise, it’s more important than ever that we find ways to get every kid to school.

This isn’t for lack of trying from our representatives and school leaders. Last year, California received historic funding for transportation. Everyone agrees that school transportation is critical for kids and that it is a key factor in whether or not they can be successful in school. This time of year, we have an urgent opportunity to get students to school every single day to meet attendance and graduation goals.

But there’s a bill moving through the California Legislature, Senate Bill 88, which would force transportation options that serve students with specialized needs to meet complicated, illogical and almost impossible requirements. If Oakland state Sen. Nancy Skinner’s proposal becomes law, these vital transportations options that help fill the gaps could struggle to exist.

When I was moved into the foster care system, I desperately wanted to attend my school of origin so I could see my sisters, who were living in a different home. But there was no school bus or public transportation that could get me there, leaving me separated from the most important people in my life.

In the span of one year, my sisters and I moved homes five times and I attended three different schools. Every time I changed schools, some of my coursework didn’t transfer. I thought I wasn’t going to graduate. In fact, I thought about quitting altogether.

For a while, I tried taking a two-hour public bus ride to go to school with my sisters, but I couldn’t maintain the schedule. I was falling apart mentally and falling behind in school.

Eventually, my social worker alerted me to another option called HopSkipDrive, which works with school districts and other agencies to arrange rides for students who need extra help getting to school. It changed everything. The service cut the ride to just 30 minutes and allowed my sisters and I to ride to school together.

The shortened commute also allowed me to go to school early or sometimes stay late so I could catch up on the credits I missed. After a lot of hard work, I graduated with a president’s award, citizenship award and on the honor roll.

I got lucky discovering HopSkipDrive, but I don’t want other kids in foster care to have to go through what I went through before that. Kids who are in the system already can feel like they aren’t wanted and don’t belong, and there are so many things that they have to deal with on a daily basis.

With so much instability at home, getting to school safely and consistently is one less thing to worry about.

SB 88 could make it much more difficult for services like this to survive, prompting school districts and county education offices across California to oppose the bill. At this time of year, and in this time for our state, we need to be looking for every solution to get kids to school.

I hope more people will hear my story and think about the thousands of students like me across California. We need to expand options for kids, not shrink them.

About the Author

Georgina Rodriguez is an advocate for students in California, particularly vulnerable youth. She grew up in foster care and experienced homelessness.

About CalMatters

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom committed to explaining California policy and politics.

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