FISHER — The first day of school was like Christmas for 5-year-old Jacob Chittick, who woke up at 5 a.m. thrilled to finally be in kindergarten.
He literally skipped into Fisher Grade School, loved his teacher, and by all accounts had a great time — right up until he was left home alone for five hours because of a busing snafu.
Instead of going to his after-school program at Fisher Community Church when school let out at 11 a.m. Aug. 17, Jacob was dropped off at his empty house in rural Fisher.
He wasn't discovered until a stranger coasted into the driveway hours later after running out of gas along Dewey-Fisher Road north of Champaign. The man was able to track down Jacob's father, who raced home from his job as an auto mechanic in Champaign.
Jake Chittick found his son covered in dirt from playing outside and visible tear streaks down his face. He'd been crying throughout the day and looked "pitiful," his dad said.
"At 5, you can't even tell time," said his grandmother, Michele Spading.
"It probably just seemed like forever."
Jacob's family feels fortunate that a Good Samaritan pulled into the house that day.
"It was a stroke of luck. These people were good people," Chittick said. "It'd just take another person showing up and the story would be different.
Both the Kids Club after-school program and the classroom teacher, Emily Saathoff, quickly acknowledged the mistake, and Saathoff wrote a note of apology and took extra care the next day to make sure Jacob got on the right bus for the after-school program, Chittick said. But he was disappointed in the response from school administrators.
"It's her job and responsibility to put him on the right bus, but it was her very first day of her very first year of teaching," he said. "Does it fall on her shoulders or on the people who trained her? They should have helped her."
The News-Gazette was unable to reach Saathoff for comment.
Contacted Wednesday, Superintendent Barb Thompson apologized and took responsibility for the mistake. She blamed a convergence of factors, including miscommunication between the bus driver and Chittick about Jacob's after-school plans.
The teacher followed a list prepared by the district's transportation department showing which child belonged on which bus route and "was only doing what she was directed to do. This was not her fault," Thompson said.
Children sign up for bus service at registration, and the transportation department assigns them to a route, she said. The bus driver then contacts the parent to discuss pickup and drop-off times.
The bus driver in this case talked to Chittick, who told him Jacob wouldn't need morning bus service on that first day. The driver said the subject of drop-off arrangements after school didn't come up, Thompson said.
"I'm not sure if he didn't ask the right question or what," she said. "That won't happen again."
Chittick said he thought he had covered the topic with everybody from registration on, including the driver, who did apologize to him the next day.
Asked why the bus driver left Jacob that morning with no adults present, Thompson said, "That's obviously something that we have to deal with and have dealt with. We typically have a visual of a parent or a certain car in the drive."
She declined to name the bus driver but said he's worked for the district for more than five years and is "a great employee who goes above and beyond in every way shape and form." He is still driving the bus.
"We're very sorry that it happened. Above all else the last thing we would ever want to do is put a child in harm's way," she said. "We're so very thankful that the child ended up being OK."
Chittick, a divorced single dad, said Jacob knew something was wrong when he got on the bus after school that first day, but he was afraid to tell the driver. "It was the very first time he'd seen the bus driver or been on a bus," he said.
When they got to his house, Jacob was greeted in the drive by his dog, a St. Bernard. An independent sort, he was able to let himself into the house with a spare key hidden on the property, something he had practiced with his dad.
The nearest neighbor is almost a mile away, and he'd been taught to stay away from the road. So Jacob got himself an apple and a Gogurt from the fridge and pulled out his Play-Doh and toy cars. He played outside with his dog, who "follows him everywhere," and loaded up his Tonka trucks with gravel and dirt from the yard, Chittick said. He told his dad, "I had Kitty to cuddle with when I was sad."
When Jacob saw the man pull into the driveway he went up to the car, presumably thrilled to see a human being, his dad said. The driver had gotten off work in Champaign and didn't notice that his gas tank was low before heading home to Fisher.
Jacob had been taught not to talk to strangers, but "at this point he's been alone for four and a half hours," Chittick said.
The man suspected something was wrong. Jacob told him his dad wasn't home but worked at Beaumont Tire and Auto in Champaign. In another lucky coincidence, the man's wife is related by marriage to Beaumont's owner. She called his office and tracked down Chittick's boss, who immediately sent him home. It was about 4:45 p.m.
Time was a blur, but Chtitick estimates it only took 5 or 10 minutes to drive to his house.
"I drove like a moron, speed-racing home," he said. "I was a nervous wreck. I was thinking, 'Boy, I'll bet he's hungry.'"
Chittick placed calls that evening to the superintendent's office, the school, Jacob's teacher and the Kids Club. School offices were already closed, but Kids Club administrator Staci Benson soon returned his call.
Benson said she doesn't always know which children are coming to Kids Club from the school on a given day and assumed Jacob's dad had picked him up on his first day. She apologized profusely and made arrangements to contact Chittick directly if Jacob fails to show up again.
"I am just glad that he was OK, and that we could work with the family to ensure that it wouldn't happen again," she said.
Jacob's teacher called Chittick first thing the next morning, last Thursday. Chittick reminded her that he had told her at a "meet the teacher" event that Jacob would be going to the after-school program, which she didn't initially remember but later confirmed after checking her notes.
Thompson said that meeting is something the kindergarten teachers set up themselves and didn't involve the transportation department. When the teacher got the new bus list last week, she assumed that was the latest information, as "things change all the time," Thompson said.
The district has seven bus drivers who transport 400 of the 590 children in grades K through 12. The grade school has 333 students.
Chittick said he also called the superintendent's office that Thursday morning and left a message with Thompson's secretary, but never got a call back.
Thompson said her focus after she got Chittick's message was to figure out what happened and ensure it wasn't repeated. She also knew that he had already spoken with the teacher and "felt like we were doing everything we could to get things under control."
"Nobody took it lightly," she said. "It's not typical for us to have this kind of issue."
Chittick said he talked with Principal James Moxley that Thursday afternoon when he called to check whether Jacob had been delivered safely to the after-school program. He said Moxley suggested that Kids Club staff should have called when Jacob didn't show up; Chittick replied that his son's safety was the school's responsibility first.
Moxley also apologized but said he wanted Chittick to talk directly with the teacher, who had "first-hand information." She did, after walking Jacob to the right bus to make sure he got on safely, he said.
"We discussed how it could have been handled better and she took those steps to rectify it on the second day," Moxley said. "It was an unfortunate event, something that we would never want to happen again."
Thompson and Moxley said Wednesday that better communication is needed with the Kids Club.
"If we could have gotten a call saying, 'Where is this child?' we would have had this child back here as soon as the route was done," Thompson said. "A lot of things could have happened to make this not happen. I will fix what I can on my end, and get procedures in place from everybody else's side also."
By his second day of school last week, Jacob's attitude toward school had drastically changed. He didn't want to get out of bed and asked his dad if he could go to work with him instead, said Spading, who lives with Chittick and works at Parkland College.
"He's coming back out of it," Chittick said Wednesday. "He's happy about school again."
But he believes it's a community issue, noting it has happened in other districts. Chittick and Spading wanted to share their story "to make sure it doesn't happen to anybody else."