Most parents worry about their kids on the first day of school — particularly when they don’t come home on time.
On the first day of the new summer school program operated by Newton Learning, difficulties arose in accommodating more than 7,000 students in seven buildings districtwide. Although the day at Columbia elementary schools ended at 4:15 p.m. Monday, many schools were still loading buses until 5 p.m. Some worried parents called police to report their children missing when they had not returned home by around 5:30 or 6 p.m. Shawn Brady, general manager of First Student, the company charged with transporting the students, said all students were finally home by 7:15 p.m. and said the system still has some kinks to work out.
“Quite a few kids got on the wrong bus simply because it was the first day of school,” Brady said. “This problem was magnified by wrong enrollment and routing them to different districts than usual.”
Skip Deming, assistant superintendent for instruction, addressed the issue in his update to the school board Monday evening. He and other members of the administration were personally dealing with parent phone calls over missing children well into the start of the meeting.
Deming explained the “major glitch” occurred as First Student routed students by the address on their enrollment forms while Newton Learning assigned them to a building by their regular attendance area. Deming said this left about 300 students caught in the shuffle.
In the morning, Deming said students were shuttled to the proper building. After school, however, those students blended in with the masses of other students wanting to get home.
Brady pointed out another factor that led to the busing mix-up: high enrollment.
Including the K-8 Enrichment Program, almost 8,000 students will attend school this summer, more than triple last year’s enrollment. This means the buses are transporting about 6,500 students, or about 80 percent of the 8,000 they transport during a normal school year, Brady said.
Busing wasn’t the only aspect of summer school that got off to a rough start. The effects of the higher enrollment could be seen Monday morning at Mill Creek Elementary School. A sense of disorder plagued the school well after the 8:45 a.m. bell that was to signal the start of the day. Teachers and support staff corralled students into classrooms and the gymnasium as they got off the buses while trying to direct parents dropping off their children.
Parents gripped their children’s hands so as not to lose them in the crowd. Some were wandering the hallways to locate the correct classroom; others waited in a snakelike line to pick up schedules and ask questions. At the same time, many also had their children tugging at their arms, anxious to start their first day of class.
Despite the efforts of the staff, eager to help and ready to begin teaching classes, many parents left Mill Creek with concerns.
“It’s just awful in there,” said Tracy Jones, whose son’s name was not on the enrollment roster when she tried to get his schedule. “This whole thing is just a mess.”
Other parents were unsure how to pick up their children at the end of the day, especially since many experienced difficulties with the buses in the morning.
James McQuitty and his family recently moved into the district from Fayette. Since this is his first encounter with multiple bus routes, McQuitty did not know what to expect when the bus did not arrive.
“It might have just been running late,” he said, referring to the time schedule sent to him by mail. “I called the number on the back and it was busy, so I just decided to bring them. I just want to make sure they get home OK.”
First-day issues struck Shepard Boulevard Elementary School as well, even through dismissal. Teachers divided their classes for parent pick-up outside and bus lines in the gymnasium. The inclement weather, however, drove the students back inside, crowding the hallways and making it difficult for the staff to distinguish them from the bus riders. This only contributed to the busing problems. But officials said things will get better with time.
Deming said it would take a day or two to rectify the situation, and administrators would take an active role in calling parents if necessary to notify them of their options.
“We are only as good as a student’s experience,” he said. “So, today was a bad day for the district.”
Even with the confusion, many teachers said the day went as smoothly as it could for a first day.
“It was as organized as it could be for having roughly 600 kids,” said Amy Dolan, a first-grade teacher at Shepard Boulevard. She credited the nametag system used for the students, labeling their homerooms, their daily schedule and their bus numbers.
Members of the staff said each successive day would run more smoothly as both students and teachers became more familiar with the schedule and the building.
— Missourian reporters JD Rinne and Erika Meeker contributed to this report.