|Students spending more time on buses
by Jennifer Biller
CLARKSBURG -- Student Jill Singleton spends more than eight hours a week on a school bus.
She lives in the community of Wildcat, more than 26 miles from where she attends school at Lewis County High.
Her days are long, beginning at 5:45 a.m. When she has extra-curricular activities -- which is often -- she doesn't get home until after 9 p.m. Then, it's time for homework.
The hectic days are part of her life as a student, Singleton said. She's just come to accept it.
"Yes, I'd like to be able to sleep in longer and get home earlier, but it's not possible," she said.
Singleton is like thousands of students in West Virginia. Since the trend toward consolidation in the last 50 years, the schools they attend aren't close to their homes. As a result, students in some areas are on the bus three times longer than the state recommends.
"We have 5-year-olds riding a bus an hour and a half one way in some counties. That's an outrage," said Linda Martin, coordinator for Challenge West Virginia, a statewide organization that promotes small schools.
Martin's group has researched the effect that long bus rides have on children throughout the state and published the findings.
Challenge found lengthy commutes mean less family time and fewer students participating in after-school activities, Martin said.
In Harrison County, students are boarding buses as early as 6:20 a.m. in places such as Green Valley. Some students from Wallace don't get home until 4:30 p.m., an hour and a half after school is dismissed.
"There are locations in the county that you can't drive to within 30 minutes of a school," said Victor Gabriel, Harrison County Schools transportation director. "Bus runs have 30-50 stops, usually about a minute per stop. So you're looking at 30-50 minutes for stops, plus the 30 minutes of driving time."
There is no simple answer to reduce bus times, Gabriel said.
"Some say make more than one trip, and we've tried that but it doesn't really do anything to help our times," he said. "We still have kids riding for an hour from areas like Wallace and Kincheloe."
Since Gabriel started as transportation director in 1982, the county has closed 18 schools, he said. Many of those buildings had a large percentage of students who walked to school.
"There weren't a whole lot of bus kids then, but when the schools closed we had to bus them," Gabriel said. "Now we move around 9,000 students and have 96 buses on the road every day. Consolidation has caused us to transport kids who traditionally didn't ride buses."
Counties just don't have the number of buses or drivers it would require to massively reduce students' travel times, he said.
In Lewis County, some students who live near the Gilmer/Doddridge county lines spend more than an hour one way on the bus, said Lewis County Schools Transportation Director Mildred Paxson.
It's the price families have to pay when neighborhood schools are closed and students are bused to nearby towns.
"We can't help it because they live out in the country," Paxson said. "We do try to give door-to-door service and push the bus routes out as far as we can, while trying to stay in the guidelines."
Martin contends students who have long commutes are less likely to participate in sports and other school activities.
While counties do provide buses for students who stay for extra-curricular activities, those buses don't give door-to-door service. In some areas in Harrison County, parents are asked to meet the activity bus at a halfway point, Gabriel said.
In Lewis County, the situation is similar.
"We don't go up in the hollers, we just stay on the main highways for shuttle runs," Paxson said. "The parents pick them up at the main road or at the stop."
Although Singleton does have a long commute, it hasn't stopped her from participating in after-school events. But, it has stopped her from riding the bus on those days.
"I usually drive when I have an extra-curricular activity," she said. "But since I live so far from school, my parents don't allow me to drive every day."
Staff writer Jennifer Biller can be reached at 626-1449 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org