Minneapolis bus ridership increased by a few thousand backpacks on Monday, with the launch of an ambitious program to get city high school students to class via public transportation instead of traditional yellow buses.
The young riders were easy to spot, struggling to keep their eyes open as early as 6 a.m. as they headed into Day One. Let's keep our eyes open, too, to every opportunity to make this program a success.
I've heard unfortunate rumblings about potential problems with the Minneapolis Public Schools' Go-To Student Pass, which allows eligible high school students free access to city buses and light rail from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week.
Missed buses. Fights. Rude behavior. Possible? Sure, at any age.
I'd rather talk about what is very right with the program once the kinks are worked out: Flexibility and freedom for kids with before- and after-school activities or jobs, greater school attendance and, most important, a direct route to closing the achievement gap.
Metro Transit has sold about 4,000 student passes to MPS at $300 each for the first phase of this program, which includes Edison, Henry, North, Roosevelt, Washburn and Wellstone. MPS plans to add South and Southwest in 2013-2014.
Students in other cities, including Detroit, New York and Philadelphia, have long used public transportation to get to school, although many of them have to pay for it. Bus ridership is a great life skill which, naturally, requires practice.
That's why policy makers considering the switch turned to the Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board's (YCB) Youth Congress, whose motto is "No decision about us without us."
The Youth Congress' transportation committee launched a two-year pilot, sending about 75 members onto public transit with Go-To cards. They went everywhere, from school to jobs to the Mall of America to extracurricular activities including sports and music.
"They were nervous at first, but pretty thrilled with the freedom," said Evan Barnett, lead coordinator of the transportation committee and a city bus rider since fifth grade.
The students discovered all sorts of benefits. They saved money and were less stressed, as were their working parents who didn't have to schlep them places. They met new people, and liked being green. A few offered a humbling reminder about what they'd become accustomed to. "I don't have to choose between bus fare and lunch," wrote one.
As the pilot evolved, the bus environment got friendlier, Barnett said. "People started becoming more polite," including bus drivers who received additional training in how to welcome young riders and keep them behaving well, and safe, in an unfamiliar environment. Only 3 percent or so of traditional bus riders are under 18.
"There are safety issues, whether you're waiting for the yellow bus or another bus," said Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, a big supporter of the program. "We need to be on the security issues, but I'm hopeful we can make this work."
YCB member Donesha Lester, 16, of Edison High School, added that safety "has nothing to do with the transportation. It has everything to do with the people on the transportation. Parents need to talk to their kids."
To help support bus etiquette and safety, Youth Congress members teamed up with Kohler Productions to produce a playful 4 1/2-minute video featuring "Metro Man," (www.ycb.org/news) who reminds students to stay alert, turn down music, and give up their seat for elderly riders or moms with strollers.
The video is being distributed via Facebook and Twitter.
Barnett, who used to ride the bus from north Minneapolis to Washburn for football camps, is mostly excited about chipping away at the achievement gap. Missing the yellow bus used to mean missing a day of school. Now it means waiting 15 minutes for the next bus.
"We just don't have the youth in our city in school enough to adjust the gap," Barnett said. "We need to connect them to resources inside and outside of school, but you can't become involved if you can't get to school."
Jakema Watkins, an 11th-grader, was all smiles as she exited a city bus Monday at 7 a.m., a few blocks from Henry High in north Minneapolis with her brother, Shirell, a freshman. They're both math-focused students and both veteran riders, she to school, work and home after cheerleading practice. He rides to see cousins in Brooklyn Park and home after football practice.
"It's kinda neat," Jakema said of the Go-To Pass. "But I was talking to my mom and I said, 'I wonder what people who use the I-missed-the-bus excuse are going to use now.'"
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