The first day of school was supposed to be extra special for preschooler Sophie Clark of West Hartford. This fall, it was her turn to hop on the bus with older sister Breanna.
However, when the Connecticut Region Education Council (CREC) cut bus routes for magnet pre-school students living outside of Hartford, Sophie’s schoolgirl dreams were dashed.
"I want to put my seatbelt on and go really fast," Sophie said.
Sophie is one of hundreds of pre-school students who were affected when the school system suddenly yanked selected spots on the bus.
"I was told by CREC transportation that she was riding the bus, and they [said] no one out of Hartford is riding the bus and it's also a state law,” said Adelle Clark, Sophie's mother.
The change comes after her older daughter Breanna rode CREC school buses for two years as a pre-school student. The transportation decision also means that after Clark puts Breanna on the bus for kindergarten, she drives another 25 minutes on the same route to the same school to drop off Sophie. Clark, a single mother of two, does not want to remove her older daughter from the bus, saying it’s been an integral and positive experience for her over the past two years.
Since the change, CREC has offered Clark and other parents a $5 daily stipend to cover the costs of driving pre-school children to school. However, Clark says the timing of the bus is something she can come to rely on in order to make ends meet.
"In order for me to even out every week, I have to either pay someone to pick her up which would save us a little bit of money or I'd have to work extra hours on the weekend,” Clark said.
Louis Velazquez, of West Hartford, is facing the same problem with his 4-year-old and 8-year-old sons who are also enrolled in CREC in Avon.
"I'm pretty much going to have to go from a full-time employee to a part-time employee now because I have no means of transportation for my son," Velazquez said. "It's an inconvenience because they have room on the bus."
The NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters approached CREC Executive Director Dr. Bruce Douglas to find out why pre-school students living outside of Hartford will not be provided busing, as they have been in previous years.
"Recently the state’s Department of Education indicated that we were no longer to transport 3 and 4-year-old children because of limited resources,” Douglas said. “I would assume that would mean budget problems. So we engaged in a conversation with them and we tried to convince them this might be problematic."
The Department of Education refused repeated requests for interviews and instead issued a statement via email on the busing changes:
"Current state policy provides for bus transportation for students in kindergarten through grade 12 who are enrolled in Regional School Choice Office (RSCO) magnet schools, as well as Hartford preschool students enrolled in RSCO programming, " said Jim Polites, spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Education.
According to the Department, this transportation policy was enacted a couple of years ago, but CREC was not instructed to implement it until this school year. The bottom line: CREC pre-school students living outside of Hartford are now on their own, even if they have siblings attend the same school.
Douglas acknowledges the bus problem threatens CREC's mission to combat educational inequality in Connecticut and the contradiction of CREC’s mission but maintains this is not a decision the organization can control at this time.
"I hope to change to turn things around right away..quickly. This fall,” Douglas said. “I believe that by speaking with members of the State Department of Education and the administration and members of the General Assembly, that they're rational people and they'll come to a position where they'll see this is not congruent with what we stand for in the state of Connecticut, and that we will transport these children,” Douglas added.
Douglas said parents can “reasonably expect” to see the charter school organization petition Gov. Dannel Molloy’s office to obtain the funding needed to get pre-school students back on the bus soon.
In the meantime, Adelle Clark is going to do everything she can to get her youngest daughter to school.
"I'm just going have to drive her to school, and pay for the after-care because I'm not going to take her education away until she's five,” Clark said. “That's not fair to her."