Life in the carpool lane

As school approaches, parents will be engaged in a transportation tango, choreographing ways to get their offspring to classes and activities at hundreds of public, private and parochial schools.

Yes, virtually all public schools and some private ones offer free or paid bus service. Yes, older kids often prefer to ride with friends who drive, or take public buses. Yes, some parents cherish "alone time" with their children, even if it means driving long distances every day.

But for many parents, carpooling is the only option, whether they do the chauffeuring themselves or delegate it to a housekeeper, nanny or older child. Sometimes one couple has to use two cars to handle a single shift, or families ditch the sedan for a larger vehicle that holds more children and gear.

"I would have had an SUV anyway, but I had to buy one that had a second back seat for all the kids," said Elizabeth Wainstein, an Alexandria, Va., auction house owner with three daughters in as many carpools. She chose one with roll bars because "I thought it was the safest."

Browne Academy in Alexandria, Va., with 280 students in preschool through eighth grade, no longer offers bus service because "we had a drop in ridership, difficulty in maintaining certified drivers and an increase in fuel and insurance costs," business manager Jim Ringer said.

Middle-schooler Matthew Bocchi, 11, has been driven to Browne since kindergarten, said his mother, Linda Bocchi, who heads the parents association. "We have a family directory, and at the back it's listed by Zip code. You start figuring out who lives where. You pick up the phone and say, 'Hi, you interested in carpooling?' "

In some cases, parents, schools, neighbors, police and local officials must resolve contentious carpool congestion and safety issues at school before the first drop-off or pickup occurs. Thus the Field School, located on two-lane Foxhall Road in Washington, allows campus drop-offs only for vehicles carrying at least two students; individual students are shuttled to school from four Metro stops. While the McLean School in Potomac, Md., offers limited parking to seniors, many students are carpooled to 13 shopping centers, where they board buses.

At Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., a public magnet school with 2,800 students, business manager Jim Funk says there is no way to know how many carpools augment bus service and public transit.

But neighborhood street parking is for residents only, and Blair issues just 150 on-campus student parking permits, based on activities: "Athletics, theater or band; a lot of kids who can't take large instruments on the bus," said Funk, ever watchful for the "secondary market" in illicitly borrowed permits.

Sidwell Friends School in Washington offers some bus service, but not to Suellen Ferguson's neighborhood. Several times a week, she and her daughter leave the house at 6:45 a.m. in a Honda van. They spend 20 minutes picking up five classmates in Maryland, and 40 more getting to the school. Ferguson then turns around and drives an additional hour to her Annapolis, Md., law office.

She calls the six-family operation "the world's most complicated carpool. It's on the computer and we have a list serve we use every day. If you have to change the time for the next day, you do it by e-mail. If it's for that day, you get on the phone. It only works because the people are very responsible and flexible," Ferguson said.

There is the occasional glitch, however. "I was driving, I had all these kids pile into the car and they all said one girl wasn't coming. Then she called. 'Why didn't you pick me up?' " Ferguson recalled. "A lot of times, the kids know what everyone else is doing, but that day they got it wrong. I turned around. It was my job to bring her home. They all had to sit through going back to get her, which I thought was very instructive for everybody."

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