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As Sweetwater Union High School District officials raced to plug a multimillion-dollar budget hole, they announced they’d be slashing bus routes. The majority of the cuts were made to routes servicing San Ysidro High. We joined sophomore Jose Luis Perez on his long trek to school, which begins just after 5 a.m.
When the Sweetwater Union High School District announced its $30 million budget crisis in late 2018, officials warned that financial cuts were looming.
Months later, the district announced it would cut 29 bus routes at four schools, 20 of which were designated for San Ysidro High School. (Sweetwater has historically provided far more bus transportation at San Ysidro than other schools, said Sweetwater spokesman Manny Rubio. The district had tough decisions to make about where to trim its budget and decided it could no longer subsidize the transportation, he said.)
Students who relied on buses to get to school every day have to now pack city buses or hike up a three-mile hill along Otay Mesa Road.
Jose Luis Perez, a sophomore at San Ysidro High, is one of those students. He wakes up around 4:30 a.m. every day to start making his way to school, which takes him about two hours.
Along with some of his peers, Jose Luis has been outspoken about the district’s decision to cut bus routes. Students and parents have protested and packed board meetings to demand action. They say the cuts are racially motivated because they have mostly affected students of color from low-income families.
Recently, I followed Jose Luis on his journey to and from school.
At 5:20 a.m., Jose Luis begins his walk to school from his home in the Las Lomas Mobile Home Park.
Jose Luis is involved in several school clubs, including the Associated Student Body. He has to be at school by 7 a.m. so he can have enough time to eat before his zero-period class starts.
Before the district’s financial crisis, Jose Luis took the school bus to and from school. The 3.5-mile route would take about 10 minutes by car.
Because he starts his day so early, Jose Luis says he’s usually the only one walking up the hill before 7 a.m. His mother can’t drive him to school because she works nights, and doesn’t get home before school starts.
Even though Jose Luis begins to sweat as he climbs up the hill, he puts on his sweater to protect himself from bugs. He has developed rashes since making the daily walk to school.
Jose Luis arrives at school on time, ready to start his long day. Though he’s already completed a grueling trek to school, one of his first classes, ironically, is physical education.
After classes end for the day, several San Ysidro High students, parents and community members meet with representatives of the district to discuss solutions for the bus route cuts.
Manny Rubio, director of the Grants and Communications Department at the SUHSD, explains to students why the district decided to cut bus routes.
Students challenged the district on how it ended up with a $30 million budget hole despite the fact that officials knew for months that a fiscal crisis was looming.
Jose Luis sits in the back of the room and listens to the discussion.
Before heading back home, Jose Luis arranges his backpack filled with binders, books and papers of his daily schoolwork.
Around 5 p.m., Jose Luis begins his walk home.
For years, community members advocated for a safe sidewalk along the three-mile long road to San Ysidro High. Jose Luis says that before the new sidewalk was opened earlier this year, students would cut through the canyon to get to school.
As he makes his way down the hill, Jose Luis looks at the cars that zoom by. He says that occasionally a friend will recognize him and offer him a ride home.
“My feet hurt,” says Jose Luis as he takes a break from his walk.
Jose Luis still holds on to his breakfast from earlier that morning.
Jose Luis is halfway home as the sun continues to beam down on him.
He says that once he gets home, he will start his homework and if he has time, he will eat dinner.
Jose Luis makes a quick stop at a 7-Eleven to buy himself a cold drink.
Jose Luis giggles after tripping on the sidewalk.
Jose Luis grazes some flowers on way home. He’s lived in San Ysidro his whole life, and said he doubts his chances of getting into a good college: “No one wants a kid from San Ysidro.”
After almost a two-hour walk, Jose Luis sees the end of his journey when he arrives at the mobile home park where he lives. “One more hill and that’s it,” he said. The next day, he will do it all over again.