Howard Robinson pulled on his white-collar shirt and opened the storm door into the darkness. He shivered at the sight of freezing rain.
When his mom dropped him off at a closed gas station, he and another Emerson Alternative High School student took shelter under the eave for half an hour. They leaned against the cold brick wall and looked west, waiting for the city bus.
The two splashed through puddles as they ran across the street. They sat in the back a little before 7 a.m. as the bus lumbered down NE 10 Street. School was still 45 minutes away.
Thousands of Oklahoma City students ride the school bus every day, and a new system gives rides to students who want to attend special academies. But some students who are trying simply to graduate still don't get a free ride.
Robinson walked a few blocks from the downtown bus station to his high school. Most of the rain had vanished, but a cold north wind blew into his face.
The high school senior can see the finish line: “I just want to graduate from Emerson.”
Transportation adds academy routes
School buses carry about 13,000 Oklahoma City students a day out of a districtwide enrollment of about 43,000, according to district statistics.
About 6,700 students are in-district transfers — students who live in the Oklahoma City Public Schools district but attend a school outside their specific boundaries.
Transportation has changed a bit for Oklahoma City Public Schools with the advent of high school academies, which allow students to take specialized coursework for career paths such as finance and engineering.
The district started using a “hub and spoke” system to shuffle students to academy schools, Transportation Director Scott Lane said.
Normally, transfer students don't receive any transportation, but exceptions are made for some magnet students and some charter schools. An exception also was made for academy students.
Academy buses pick up students from their home high schools beginning about 6 a.m. Students then ride to Northeast Academy, where they jump on buses that take them to their academy schools. It can be a long ride — more than an hour.
This year, about 20 students use the academy buses, but Lane said buses won't be as empty when more students attend academy schools in future years.
“We'd like to get a lot more,” Lane said. “Next year as we open more academies, we hope to branch out.”
So far, the academy buses haven't been open to other transfer students, including Emerson students.
Lane said he doesn't know why some Emerson students can ride the bus but not others.
Oklahoma City Superintendent Karl Springer said in a statement that the issue needs to be looked at.
“We will take a closer look at the current plan for transporting transfer students and then gauge our district resources and the needs of the students to help make the best decision possible,” he said.
2 programs, 2 plans
Principal Sherry Kishore said she thinks some Emerson students aren't allowed on buses because it's the status quo.
Emerson has two programs at her high school. OutReach is for pregnant teens and young mothers. Metro is for students who are academically behind or who struggle in a traditional classroom.
Pregnant girls and young mothers in the OutReach program can go to designated pickup points and ride one of a few district routes. Some bring their children with them to Emerson, which has two on-site day cares.
But Metro students have to find their own way to school.
One year, Kishore had a pair of siblings — a girl in the OutReach program and a boy in the Metro program. The sister rode a district school bus every day. The boy had to pay for a city bus.
When the Metro program began, it was designed for boys who had behavior problems, Kishore said.
But the program has evolved, she said. Girls can enroll now, too. And students are more likely to be here because they need help catching up — not because of bad behavior. Some need a nontraditional setting. Others blossom in the small classes. A few are dropouts who are giving school another shot.
“It's a huge thing that they've got the guts to walk back in the door and say, ‘I want to finish,'” she said.
Some ride with friends. A few walk or ride their bikes across town. Sometimes Kishore or other staff members pick up students and bring them in.
“If they're lucky enough to have support, a parent brings them,” Kishore said.
Some students, like Howard, come from the far reaches of the city. They leave before sunrise and don't make it to class until after first hour starts, Kishore said.
A single bus ride is $1.50 for age 18 and older or 75 cents for age 17 and younger, according to Metro Transit. A monthlong bus pass is $50 for age 18 and older and $25 for age 17 and younger.
Some students can't afford bus fare, Kishore said.
Kishore tries to scrape up money from here and there.
Kishore receives a $100 donation every month from a Newalla couple, and she uses that for transportation.
“We're getting a little help here and there from people,” she said.
But it's not enough.
“I certainly don't have enough funding to give a bus ticket to every child every day,” Kishore said.
Dqualis Johnson also takes the bus from Midwest City. He's a junior who used to go to Star Spencer, too. He attends Emerson because of his learning disabilities.
Johnson said he knows not all of his classmates can afford the bus ride, so he tries not to use the passes Kishore gives out unless he really needs it.
He said it's unfair he and his classmates don't get a bus ride while some other students do.
“People need the transportation,” he said.
Robinson, the Emerson senior, uses a monthly bus pass Kishore gave him. He's grateful to attend Emerson, he said. Star Spencer wasn't the right place for him.
“It's a good school,” he said. “There's just too many people.”
Robinson came to Emerson because he was behind.
With only a year of school left, he hadn't passed enough state-mandated end-of-instruction tests to graduate.
He needed to catch up in some classes, too. His new school has helped him do that.
He plays piano, organ, drums and the trumpet. He can play by ear. He still performs with the Star Spencer choir when he can. He'd like to go to Langston University and be in the band; he hopes to be a musician.
He spends more than an hour on the bus each way, but he still misses the first few minutes of his first- hour English class.
His teacher understands, though, and so do the rest of his teachers.
“They show they care about you,” Robinson said. “They talk to you every day. It's kind of like second parents.”