September 24, 2010 at 1:00 am

Special ed left behind

No buses, no school for Detroit Public Schools' neediest

Allene Griffith helps her son Alonzo onto a bus Wednesday for his first day of school in a district that started more than two weeks ago. (David Coates / The Detroit News)


Alonzo Griffith is visibly anxious in his family's living room, dressed for school and waiting for a bus that has yet to come.

The autistic 16-year-old fidgets with his fingers, gets up from the couch and heads to the bathroom to fill a glass of water. He sits back down for a while, rubs his fingers then moves to a kitchen chair, scratching his knee.

It's 6:37 a.m. -- the time the school bus should be at his northwest Detroit home. A bus is heard in the distance and his mother leaps up and helps him put on his Spider-Man backpack. But like every other day for nearly three weeks, this bus didn't come for Alonzo.

While other children in Detroit Public Schools started instruction Sept. 7, Alonzo has yet to go to class.

A lack of transportation, confusion over school assignments and problems with staffing have frustrated families with special needs students. This comes despite the district's efforts to streamline transportation by outsourcing busing and hiring a New York firm to make special education more efficient.

Nearly 1 in 5 DPS students requires special education services, according to the state. Lack of transportation is particularly troubling for students with disabilities whose Individualized Education Program assessment that details which services, therapies and teaching goals a student will get, calls for "curb to curb" busing, as is the case with Alonzo.

Alonzo's school, Cooley North, which housed special education classes, closed this year along with 29 others in the face of budget cuts. He was assigned to another special education school, Jerry L. White, for the fall. But 30 minutes after he left home on his first day of school the bus brought him back since the school doesn't offer an autistic education program, said his mother, Allene Griffith, 53.

That set off a series of phone calls, voice mails, no answers and eventually a new assignment to Central High School, a traditional neighborhood school. Alonzo had previously been separated from a general school population. He struggles to grasp a pencil and has no effective means of communication. His mother wonders how her son will get the same level of service at Central.

But first he needs to get there.

'We must do better'

It's Wednesday morning and Alonzo's mother watches from their front room window for the bus, the morning news on the television. By 7:13 a.m. she calls the transportation center four times to learn why the bus hasn't arrived, but no one answers. She's losing hope her son will ever get picked up for school.

Like many DPS parents, the Griffiths don't have a car. No bus means no education and it's been like this since the start of the school year despite what Griffith estimates as 100 phone calls and a trip to the district's Welcome Center for answers.

"They don't have answers," the frustrated mother said. "They can tell you where your child is supposed to go. They can even tell you that the buses are going to come. But the buses don't come."

Robert Bobb, the district's emergency financial manager, pledged to meet with parents of special education students at one high school next week.

"Special education children deserve everything that's in their IEP," Bobb said in a statement. "Even one special ed classroom without the appropriately certified teacher or one student not picked up on time on a single day is unacceptable. We must do better than this."

Bobb hired Alvarez & Marsal of New York City to manage special education services. A&M referred questions to the district.

A district spokeswoman said transportation troubles have been largely resolved. The issues are due, in part, to parents waiting until the first week of school to enroll special education students or to change their addresses, creating a service backlog.

Some special ed programs were moved due to closures and shifting enrollments, but students who are assigned to comprehensive schools from center-based programs will have the same services, spokeswoman Kisha Verdusco said.

Allene Griffith believes the burden of the district's busing and program changes rests on the students with disabilities who need the most care. During her recent visit to the district's special education office she encountered many parents with similar problems, she said.

Officials at the Michigan Department of Education said it's up to districts to ensure students have access to programs specified in the IEP developed by parents and school officials. Issues that prevent that from happening "are a cause for serious concern and can result in serious consequences for the district," said Eleanor White, special education chief.

Michigan Department of Education spokeswoman Jan Ellis said: "It is important that all districts ensure students with disabilities who qualify for transportation services, have access to those services, and are able to get to and from school. Anything else is unacceptable."

Red tape persists

Jaiwan Summers, 3, is another autistic DPS student who has been at home waiting for a bus and learning a lesson of patience.

His mother, Jaiwanna Brooks, completed her son's IEP in the spring calling for transportation that included a seat belt and harness, Brooks said. He was assigned to Loving Elementary.

But the bus didn't come and the transportation department said Jaiwan is not listed as special needs, Brooks said. It took phone calls and voice mails to straighten out the glitch and eventually transportation alerted Brooks that a bus would come Sept. 13. The preschooler was dressed and excited for school and then confused when the bus didn't show.

Complicating the matter, Brooks received a call that Loving can't accept her son because it doesn't have his program and he'll be transferred to Nichols, which has education for autistic students, she said.

"They had six months to get it right. They could have had it all together: the school, the bus, everything before it was time to go to school so my baby wouldn't have to go through all the changes. He's autistic. He doesn't like all the changes."

The bus finally arrives

By Wednesday, when the Brookses had given up on transportation for Jaiwan, a bus came, shocking the family.

"It took three weeks," Jaiwanna Brooks said. "We called and called and finally, they gave my baby a bus."

One problem though, the bus didn't have the harness Jaiwan needs and the driver told Brooks he'll have to order one before Jaiwan can ride.

Inside the Griffith household, Alonzo hasn't taken off his backpack and is still waiting.

"This is ridiculous," said Griffith, peering outside her front window again for any sign of a bus. "Here we are again today."At 8:30 a.m., the transportation center calls Griffith back. It's her seventh call of the morning. "I'm still sitting here waiting," Griffith said.

Then at 8:36 a.m. -- two hours late -- a bus stops in front of her home and honks. Alonzo pops up, appearing excited. Mom quickly puts on his coat. The two walk hand in hand to bus #420.

It may be weeks later, but it's an emotional day for mother and son: School has finally begun.