Every morning, Lettie Hicks, wakes up her 17-year-old daughter, Ja-Nyla Hicks, at 5:30 a.m. so she can get ready for school and catch a 6:40 a.m. bus, along with 15 to 20 other East St. Louis High School students in the area.
She then wakes up her 4-year-old daughter Ja-Krya Gayden, around 7:20 a.m. to get her ready to catch a bus at 8:15 a.m. inside of the Norman Owens Apartments.
Earlier in the school year, there was a shooting death in the Norman Owens complex, and while police investigated another body was found from another homicide.
“That shooting that occurred had a lot of kids frightened, too, because it was in the area that they have to … (go through) a lot,” Lettie Hicks said.
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Crime such as the shooting death had members of a local group, Parents United for Change, push for busing for more students in East St. Louis District 189 as part of a two-year campaign.
After two General Assembly votes in November over an amendatory veto of outgoing Gov. Bruce Rauner, schools may now provide free bus transportation to students who live within 1.5 miles of school if there is a pattern of criminal activity.
Previously, free transportation for students was provided to those who lived more than 1.5 miles from school, and for students who had a route of less than 1.5 miles that had enough traffic hazards such as no sidewalks, high speed limits, high traffic volumes or crossing a railroad.
State Rep. LaToya Greenwood, D-East St. Louis, who introduced the legislation, said school districts can earn reimbursements to help cover the higher cost of transportation.
Greenwood also is the human resources director District 189.
“It is important that our students feel safe when commuting to and from school, and this measure will help ensure a safe passage for our students,” Greenwood said in a news release. “When students don’t feel safe commuting to school, attendance suffers.”
Currently more than 3,400 students take a bus to school in District 189. Under the new rules more than 2,000 more students in the district could receive free transportation.
The district hopes to be able to get reimbursed by the state for the additional $1.39 million of transportation costs.
The district estimates it would need to add 30 more bus routes, and its transportation provider Illinois Central, would need to hire 40 more drivers and buy 35 more buses.
Sydney Stigge-Kaufman, the director of Strategic Partnerships for District 189, said District 189 Superintendent Arthur Culver has held town hall meetings with parents and other stakeholders, and one of the concerns brought up is the need busing because routes to school are unsafe for a variety of reasons.
Students can be absent for a variety of reasons especially in high-poverty areas including health reasons and transportation reasons, Stigge-Kaufman said.
“The Board, administration and staff of School District 189 are deeply committed to ensuring the safety and well-being of our students,” Stigge-Kaufman said. “We know this bill will ensure that more students can travel safely to and from school. We also believe this will increase overall student attendance by ensuring more students will be present for the full school day on a regular basis.”
Kids walk pass crime scenes
The effort by Parents for Change included trips to Springfield to convince legislators to vote in favor of the bill.
Gloria Hicks, a member of Parents United for Change, said a man was killed near Dunbar Elementary just after the school year started.
“The high-crime area, some of those places people got killed, kids got to walk through,” Gloria Hicks said. “The kids know this man got killed and they got to walk right up passed there to get to school.”
Lettie Hicks, who is not-related to Gloria Hicks, added some areas don’t have street lights, which can be an issue as during some points during the school year it is dark when students head to school.
“There are sex offenders, in different areas, drinking, (and) drug activity going on over there by the school area such as through the parks,” Lettie Hicks said.
In Chicago, there is a Safe Passage Program where safe havens such as police stations, fire stations and libraries, as well as businesses such as restaurants and convenience stores line routes to school where youngsters can seek refuge if they have concerns about their safety.
Parents as well as other Chicago residents patrol around schools and along routes as part of a “walking school bus” program to help ensure a safe route to and from school.
East St. Louis has been listed as the most dangerous city in the country. In 2018 there have been 20 homicides in the city. Law enforcement officials have said however murders are down by 42 percent this year.
Vehicular traffic concerns
Before the legislation was adopted, Parents United for Change worked to have busing for 265 students at Dunbar Elementary and 73 students at Lincoln Middle School who live within a mile-and-a-half of campus. The group was able to have routes to the school designated as hazardous under Illinois Department of Transportation standards.
Parents even volunteered as crossing guards to help students get to school.
However, traffic patterns can change, sidewalks could be built out, and the area could lose its hazardous designation under IDOT standards, said Esther Beard, a community organizer with Community Organizing and Family Issues, which worked with Parents United for Change.
“It’s not just traffic, it’s unsafe for kids to walk across Lincoln park in the winter time when it’s dark because there are people out there drinking and there are predators out there and there’s also a chance other things may happen like shootings and other types of crime that are going on when our kids are walking to and from school,” Beard said.
Making sure students have a safe way to school helps keep up attendance.
“The fact of the matter is, safety is first,” said Mamie Cosey, one of the East St. Louis residents who pushed for expanded transportation. “Attendance needs to be there, and because parents don’t have transportation, my god we have to support our students. And we must see that these children are safe, because it’s important that they stay safe.”