The Philadelphia School District has asked outside agencies — including the Pennsylvania National Guard and Amazon — to help solve the school bus driver shortage that has plagued the district since the year started, sometimes stranding children at stops for hours, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said Wednesday.
A spokesperson for Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration acknowledged the request for National Guard help and said it was “working with the schools to evaluate the situation,” but stopped short of making any commitments.
Hite, at a news conference, said the district asked for help driving vans or assisting in other ways, adding that districts across the state and around the country are in the same bind. Massachusetts is also using its National Guard to address transportation issues.
Labor shortages are affecting Philadelphia’s school system in myriad ways, including in a backup of trash pickup that has left overflowing dumpsters and piles of trash at many schools across the city. Hite said Amazon’s recent announcement that it was adding thousands of jobs could further affect the district and bus contractors’ ability to attract drivers.
Hite said he had also made a phone call to Amazon to ask “in what ways do they think they can be helpful to us, either from a logistics perspective” or in other aspects. Calls have also been made to other vendors and external partners for potential solutions, he said.
“We are exploring all avenues which are in our span of control,” Hite said.
Steve Kelly, an Amazon spokesperson, said the company was “in conversations with the Philadelphia School District to understand how we can help.”
The district has also doubled the amount it’s offering to families to transport their children in lieu of taking yellow bus service, paying $300 per month instead of $150. And it’s explored the idea of giving SEPTA fare cards to additional children and to adults who don’t have cars as a way to get more kids to school on time, Hite said.
About 2,000 families in district, charter, and private schools — the system is responsible for transporting children in all types of schools in the city — have signed up to be paid to take their children to school. The district has budgeted for about 10,000 families, Hite said.
New employees have been added to the district’s transportation call center, which operates from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., to help give families answers, said Hite, and the system is prioritizing students with special needs as it works through transportation requests.
“Our current workforce is doing everything they can do so that our students and schools receive the support they need,” Hite said, adding that officials “understand the disappointment and frustration our families may be feeling.”
The bus crisis has strained schools, affecting instruction and principals’ capacity to handle other issues, and families, some of whom have had children stranded or abruptly left on the street far from home, with no adults present.
Hite, at his Wednesday news conference, also highlighted the work of the district’s equity coalition, formed last year, and its new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion office, formed this summer.
Its goal, the superintendent said, is system-changing work that touches every student, teacher, school, and office, ensuring that children have the same opportunities across the district.
“I am truly excited about our accomplishments so far to become a more equitable and antiracist school district,” said Sabriya Jubilee, chief of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion office.
Practically, the work will mean changes in curriculum, in admissions policies for selective schools, in how discipline is meted out, and more. Black students and other children of color are underrepresented in Philadelphia’s magnet schools and receive more suspensions than their white and Asian peers. Black students typically have less access to Advanced Placement classes.
Those imbalances, Hite said, are occurring in most schools.
“That’s ingrained in behavior, and in age-old policies,” the superintendent said.
The work will extend to academics: Do texts have examples of people who look like Philadelphia’s students? Is teaching culturally responsive?
There’s a “long-haul effort” that will be tailored to each of the district’s 215 schools to make sure the big ideas reach the ground floor and change the way students are experiencing Philadelphia schools, said Estelle Acquah, executive director of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion office. There will be ongoing training, direct coaching, and “embedding ourselves deeply” in schools.
Staff will be encouraged “to think a little bit differently of our young people and what they are capable of and the communities they come from,” Acquah said.