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It’s 7:30 a.m. on a school day, and Mark Lowery hears his mom calling. Loading on a backpack half his size, he trudges up the stairs, reels in the goodbye kiss, and pivots toward the front door.

“Honey, you’ve still got a minute,” she says, breaking the 8-year-old’s morning trance. The bus isn’t here yet, but it should be. A student at the Prospect Learning Center, a D.C. public school for children with disabilities, Mark is supposed to report for duty at 8:15 a.m. He lives off Branch Avenue SE near Maryland Avenue, and his school is way over on Capitol Hill. The bus ride averages an hour and change, so for Mark to make the opening bell, the bus should have been here half an hour ago.

But Mark’s mother, Donna Campbell-Lowery, is still making his lunch. She calmly occupies him with questions: Chicken or beef? What color apple? When the clock hits a quarter to eight and no bus has appeared, Mark’s big brother Jonathan starts to taunt him. “My bus gets to school before yours,” he boasts. “And I go all the way to Virginia!” “Nuh-uh!” Mark protests, looking to his mother for an assist. She can’t help him. “It does, honey,” she says wearily. “Jonathan’s gets to school on time.”

So it goes each morning for many of the 2,400 special-education students who ride buses and vans stamped with a District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) logo. Some, like Jonathan, get to school on time, thanks to short routes and a reasonable departure hour. Others, like Mark, cruise the streets for up to an hour and a half—maybe more—and roll into school after most teachers have worked over their blackboards a few times. It’s a very long road that stops at a dead end.

“These kids are riding these buses a million hours a day,” says Beth Goodman, a plaintiff’s attorney on Petties v. D.C., a multifaceted lawsuit filed by parents of special-education students against DCPS. “The buses are falling apart. They miss field trips and activities. It’s a disaster.”

On this particular Wednesday, Mark’s bus squeaks to a halt outside his door at 7:54. Though he won’t get to school until 9:10, that’s better than other days on Campbell-Lowery’s makeshift log, which she has used to track her son’s arrival times since the Sept. 22 opening of school. On the first day, Campbell-Lowery says, the bus didn’t arrive until 11:30 a.m. On the second morning, after she got an 8:30 call saying the bus would be late, she took Mark herself. On the third day, she gave up waiting and took him again.

“Those first days you couldn’t get through to transportation,” she complains. “One day, I tried literally 50 times. I called that number all day long.” Finally, Campbell-Lowery made a personal visit to the DCPS bus headquarters and thought her problems had been solved when Mark’s bus arrived at 7:25 a.m. on the fourth day, Sept. 25.

It was wishful thinking. Sept. 29 brought a phone call telling her Mark’s bus had been in a minor accident. Arrival time at school: 11 a.m. On Oct. 7, she stopped by and heard a not-so-heartening update from a teacher’s aide. “She told me, ‘Mark’s been doing pretty good except for the fact that he missed speech and language today. He got here late,’” Campbell-Lowery recalls.

She chuckles at the initial excuse DCPS gave her for the delinquent bus: She was told her late-summer request to switch Mark from his old school to Prospect had caused problems.

“The paperwork was there for over a month,” she says. “But you constantly have to stay on their case. If they know you’re a parent who won’t let up, they won’t mess with you as much.”

The task of getting all the different kids with their very disparate needs to various schools is a daunting one, beginning with the paperwork. Each special-education student has an Individual Education Program negotiated between his or her parents and DCPS that outlines a personal game plan—including a school site that often is not in the student’s neighborhood and sometimes not even in the District. If parents successfully work bus service into their programs, the school system must provide door-to-door service, which this year entails 207 routes delivering 1,500 students to DCPS facilities and 900 students to private schools in the region. Since DCPS offers service only to special-education students, transportation planners must patch together the web of individualized programs to organize the bus routes.

But the logistics wouldn’t be nearly so painful if DCPS had better communication between its own departments and enough buses that actually run. The lack of both led to the lawsuit filed in federal district court in 1995. “Our fleet is old—real old,” says Charles Pollard, DCPS’s beleaguered transportation manager, who has been working since the summer with a special master appointed by the court in July to oversee a long-term fix.

Appointing the special master capped months of frustration for the court. During a three-day study conducted by plaintiffs’ attorney Goodman last spring, 41 percent of the students riding DCPS buses within the city arrived at school late. Forty-five percent rode the bus for more than an hour. In an August agreement, DCPS had promised to limit students’ rides in the city to an hour and to get them to school at least 10 minutes early. In Mark’s case, DCPS is meeting neither standard.

DCPS special-education chief Jeff Myers discounts this year’s start-up fumbles, saying the school system always needs four to six weeks before the routes calm down. “Things are running fairly better than they were at the start of school,” he says cautiously. “They’re still not running as smoothly as [they] could be.”

Both Myers and Pollard blame many of the lingering foul-ups on parents. They say certain moms and dads file last-minute requests to switch their children to new schools or move to new locations but don’t inform DCPS. “They don’t think to call in the new address until right before school starts,” Pollard says, citing the example of a mother who registered her child on Sept. 22 at a school, went home, and called DCPS to complain that her child had not been picked up. But when pressed, Pollard acknowledges that such last-minute changes had not affected more than 3 percent of the total passenger load.

Mark’s school bus—a stumpy version about half the size of the typical yellow jumbo—rolls sleepily around the jangled corners of Southeast. It’s 8:00 on a recent morning, and the bus is nowhere near its destination. Mark and his dozen Prospect schoolmates are making long stops and slow progress along Naylor Road, Alabama Avenue, Savannah Street, Congress Street, and Wheeler Road.

By 8:40, they’ll start the last leg, getting on I-295 down near South Capitol Street to greet the morning bumper-to-bumper grind. The bus wiggles its way to the Sousa Bridge, crossing over the Anacostia River and battling traffic all the way to the school at F and 11th Streets NE. The 11 boys and five girls finally disembark at 9:00, ending 45 minutes of DCPS-sponsored hooky.

Prospect principal Carrie Johnson wants her 129 students at school by 8:15 a.m. so they can eat breakfast and start school like the rest of DCPS at 8:30. If they’re late, chow is still the first order of the day. “We’re not going to let the child miss breakfast,” she says.

Most students, like Mark, start the day with “prescriptive” tasks, she says, usually specific learning projects outlined in their personalized plans. But Johnson says everybody in school stops whatever they’re doing for the mandatory reading hour, which starts at 9:30 a.m. So kids who get in at 9:00 don’t get much done between breakfast and the reading hour.

“It’s very difficult, but it is not impossible,” Johnson says about the late arrivals, insisting on keeping a positive outlook. Sadly, her optimism reflects her low expectations. “I know how to make these adjustments, and our teachers do, too.”

While she believes the routes have gotten better since the start of school—there was ample room for improvement—Johnson says she can’t ignore the transportation problems. “I complain just like parents do when buses are late,” she says. “We want them to be pleased 100 percent. I don’t want my PTA meetings to be all about transportation.”

For Mark’s mother, however, no amount of positive spin will compensate for the rough ride her son has endured. “To me, he’s almost better off not going to school sometimes,” she says. “If he’s missing the morning, he’s missing a vital part of his education program.”

Campbell-Lowery has already earned her stripes fighting DCPS: She struggled for four years to have her elder son tested for learning disabilities and eventually placed in an adequate program. Now she’s determined to make sure Mark, who DCPS says also has a learning disability, doesn’t fall through the cracks, too. She knows she’s got her work cut out for her.

“This system is designed and set up to fail these children,” Campbell-Lowery says. “And they’re in no big rush to fix it.” CP