ROCKFORD — A group of Rockford elementary school students stand against the front of Lewis Lemon Elementary, trying to stay out of the snow. They’re wearing colorful winter coats and hats to keep warm, which is tough since it feels like -4 degrees with the wind-chill.
They live within a mile and a half of the school, so they can’t take the school buses. So, it’s either trying to find a ride or walk. 170 elementary schoolers at Lewis Lemon are in that same situation, without a school bus. That’s half of the whole school.
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And you can see that in the school’s attendance numbers. 84% of Lewis Lemon students were chronically absent last year, meaning that they missed at least 18 days of school. For context, that is nearly triple the state average.
In the winter, when temperatures can dip below zero in the morning, attendance gets worse. Lewis Lemon principal Aleshia Jones says not all parents have transportation and the school sometimes gets calls from them saying it’s too cold for their child to walk.
John Tac Brantley wants to make sure these kids have a ride. Some folks in the Rockford community know him as Brother John. For the past two years, Brantley has used his own van to take Lewis Lemon students to and from school — just like the kids waiting out in front of the school today. Sometimes, if he can, he takes them to the library and to other local events too. It started with just a few students. But, this fall, principal Aleshia Jones asked him if he could start taking more.
“I’ve got 16 kids today,” he said. “I’ve been averaging between 20 and 25 kids every day.”
His group of 16 wait for everyone to get ready to leave.
“I’ve got them all, we can walk towards the van. Hey, y’all, come on!” said Brantley, waving the kids single file out towards the parking lot.
The kids walk out to the van. Only, it’s not John’s van this time. Because a few weeks ago, his 2004 Honda Odyssey broke down. The timing belt snapped. It’ll cost $1,600 to replace, $1,600 that he doesn’t have.
So, for now, he’s been borrowing vehicles to keep getting kids to school and home after. The day I’m with John is the last day he can use a bus from the Rockford Housing Authority.
Several churches have also let him borrow their vans, although he has to pay for gas, and there are some days they can’t let him use them.
“Some days I miss, like Monday,” said Brantley. “I couldn’t get the Housing Authority or the church van and only two of them made it to school and the other 25 didn’t. So the school notices the difference.”
At this point, he has 30 kids on his list. So, depending on the van, he has to make multiple trips. Many of those kids live in public housing. 70% of kids at Lewis Lemon qualify as low income.
But why isn’t the school taking them? Officials from the Rockford Public Schools transportation department say part of the reason is that they still have a shortage of bus drivers.
They say “with more drivers, we could potentially increase the district’s ability to provide additional support to families who need it.”
Why not help Brantley financially? Well, John says he’s hopeful the school district will help him get a grant to assist with the cost of his work. But, RPS officials say the district doesn’t write or offer grants. Brantley also spoke at a recent city council meeting asking for sponsors to help him repair his van.
He may get a new one too, but it’s been hard to let go of his old van. He says when his mom passed away, she left him some money to keep helping in the community, which he used on the van.
But new van or not, one of the things he lives by is, as he puts it, “ask not what your community can do for you, but what can you do for your community.”
“Instead of complaining about what the school’s not doing or the parents not getting the kids to school,” he said, “I just say ‘Hey, we’ve got to get these kids to school one way or the other.’”
Fixing the van or getting a new one is his top priority. But, someday, he’d like to help even more Rockford kids get to and from school. Lewis Lemon certainly isn’t the only RPS school that struggles with chronic absences. He’s already got a half-dozen other schools on his radar — if he can get the funds.
People who want to donate so John can fix his van can do so through his non-profit Renewal Turning Point Program. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.