As St. Paul parents weigh where to send children in a shifting landscape of school choices, the district is sweetening the allure of learning closer to home by making bus service available to students a half-mile from all of its elementary schools.

Today, buses pick up children at the one-mile mark, leaving students who live closer than that to walk, be driven to school or go elsewhere.

Two years ago, the district began offering half-mile service at six schools and added seven more last fall. Enrollment has grown at several East Side buildings since then.

The citywide move means the district will sacrifice a potential $155,000 savings in its transportation budget next year. But Superintendent Valeria Silva, noting that no one wants to see kindergartners walking a mile to school, described the move as an investment worth making.

"This is crucial because we believe our families are looking for safety," she told the school board last month.

St. Paul now will be on equal footing with the Minneapolis School District, which has provided half-mile bus service to its elementary students for at least 13 years, said Frank Zeman, assistant director of transportation in Minneapolis.

Andrew Collins, St. Paul's assistant superintendent of elementary schools, said that he pushed for next year's expansion of bus routes for the district's 40-plus elementary schools based in part on his experiences as a Dayton's Bluff Elementary School principal. He said that some parents who lived fairly close to that school would send kids elsewhere because it was the only way to get bus service.

Prior to the 2011-12 school year, Sonya Kennedy drove her son, Reginald Rogers Jr., to Dayton's Bluff Elementary every day because their Mounds Park apartment wasn't far enough from school for him to take the bus. Now, he is picked up daily, and she has greater flexibility to pursue her college studies. She has peace of mind, too.

"I know he will get there safe and on time," she said. "This makes me feel real comfortable."

Strategies in play

For the 2013-14 school year, St. Paul school officials plan a district-wide overhaul that puts renewed focus on neighborhood schools as the "heart of the community." The reorganization was sparked by the recognition that students performed as well or better on standardized tests at neighborhood schools as they did at magnet schools. The move would have the added benefit of reducing transportation costs, perhaps by as much as $10 million annually, according to a 2011 Star Tribune editorial.

This school year, the district's transportation budget is $27.7 million, or about $2.3 million less than in 2010-11. A recent projection of next year's contracted busing costs -- a major piece of the transportation budget -- shows just a $292,000 savings. Michael Baumann, the district's deputy of school and business operations, told board members that many students who otherwise might not qualify for transportation outside their geographic zones or designated elementary-to-high-school "pathways" have been grandfathered into the system, and savings should increase as they graduate or leave the district. He also touted the half-mile plan, an expansion that appealed to board member Anne Carroll, who said any transportation savings should be seen as a good thing.

State Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, said parents have told her that keeping children at neighborhood schools helps strengthen connections between parents and schools. She said spending $155,000 to expand half-mile service was a "good investment, absolutely."

This month, parents are sifting through school options, and the district will host a school-choice fair at St. Paul RiverCentre on Jan. 12 to help with the process. District chief of staff Michelle Walker said half-mile busing "could be helpful for some of our sites where we believe enrollment could be an issue," but that was not the reason for the expansion.

At Dayton's Bluff Elementary, enrollment exceeded projections by 22 percent in the program's first year, and is up again this year. Enrollment gains also were reported this year at John A. Johnson and Maxfield elementary schools, both of which are in the second year of half-mile busing. But 2012-13 numbers continued to lag at Jackson Preparatory Magnet School, which like Maxfield is within the city's Promise Neighborhood.

Collins said that as a principal it was tough to hear parents say a half-mile "is too far for my child to walk, period."

Now, as an administrator, he aims to help elementary schools compete for students. As to the question of costs, he said: "Everything costs money. It's where we prioritize. It's starting our elementary students off in a positive and profound way."

Anthony Lonetree • 651-925-5036