The streetlights are still on a few minutes after 6 a.m. The parking lot outside of Southeast High School is nearly empty.
Jabreanne Gilbert, 14, waits for a bus out front, sitting in the lamplight with a few other students. Southeast is a good school, she said, but Star Spencer High School is where she really wants to be.
She'll spend two hours getting to school and two hours getting home, but that's OK, she said.
“If I didn't have school,” she said, “I wouldn't have anything.”
Gilbert attends the Star Spencer Academy of Hospitality and Tourism. She's one of more than 300 freshmen attending specialty programs, called academies, across the district.
And she's one of 22 students who ride the bus to get from her home to a school across town.
But to Gilbert, attending the academy is a privilege she doesn't take lightly.
“It's tough,” Gilbert said.
“My behavior has to be perfect. My grades have to be perfect. That helps me be better. I can't get out there and have an attitude. ... I have to work hard. It's tough, but it's worth it.”
is sorted out
A new bus plan had to be created to help students like Gilbert attend specialty academies at five schools in the district, said Scott Lane, transportation director for the district.
The buses meet at 6:45 a.m. at Northeast High School, Lane said. The students switch buses and head on to their schools. In the afternoon, they meet again at Northeast and then head home.
About 90 percent of the 43,000 students in the district qualify for free or reduced-price meals. So paying for a car and gas to drive across town and back every day is out of reach for some families, Lane said.
“It's one thing to get your child to their home school,” he said. “It's quite another to get them all the way across town.”
Lane said he expects the number of students who need the commuter service to grow next year. This year, only freshmen are enrolled in the academies. Next year, those freshmen will become sophomores, and new freshmen will enroll. So as the number of academy students grows, so will the number of kids who need a bus ride across town.
Mornings start early for academy students
Gilbert usually walks out her door at 5:40 a.m. and heads to Southeast. She usually stops at a convenience store to grab breakfast.
She lives with her mother and two sisters, but she said her mom is usually too tired to take her to the nearby school.
“She doesn't like taking me,” Gilbert said.
“She says it's too early in the morning.”
She doesn't much care for the long walk or the long bus ride to Northeast and then to Star Spencer. But she tries to stay focused on her goal: graduating high school and going to college to study business.
“There's no ‘if,' and there's no ‘don't,'” she said. “If I don't make it? That doesn't come into my head.”
There's pressure to stray, Gilbert said — pressure to sell drugs, to hustle easy money, to break the law.
She doesn't want to cave to that. She has bigger plans.
“I'm talking about how life is meant to be lived,” she said. “If you feel that's living, then you're going to suffer the consequences.”
Academies offer specialty education
Gilbert sat in the back of the band hall, scribbling notes as event planner Candice Henderson doled out advice to the academy students during a guest lecture.
“If they want the sun, the moon and the stars, and they can only afford the sun, you have to tell them,” Henderson said.
When Henderson said she brought business cards, dozens of hands went up.
These are the kinds of people Gilbert said she loves to hear from.
Her classes are challenging and interesting. For example, her computer class focuses on career knowledge, like using programs for budgeting.
“It's a lot of work,” she said, “but it's worth it.”