Over the next two years, Minneapolis Public Schools will move 4,900 high school students off yellow school buses and give them metro bus passes. It's the first metro district to make the switch, which is being greeted with both enthusiasm and trepidation.

The district said it aims to increase flexibility for high schoolers. The advantage, said Courtney Cushing Kiernat, the district's lead worker on the switch, is that students no longer will be limited to school bus runs and one after-school activity bus, and may arrive early or stay late. They'll also lose the excuse of missing school because they missed the bus.

District officials say the cost of the switch is almost equally offset by school bus savings.

In Minneapolis, only high schoolers who live more than two miles (one mile for North High School) from school now ride school buses. They'll get monthly passes usable every day on bus or light rail from 5 a.m. until 10 p.m.

The district previously issued 900 bus cards to students who are in a program that requires them to travel across the city. Roughly 2,600 students will join them this fall, from all but South and Southwest high schools, where 2,300 students will switch a year later. Also getting passes next fall will be students who live within two miles of school but are eligible for free or discount school lunches, a move the district said is welcomed by south side Latino parents who worry about harassment of students getting to school on foot.

Susanna Engel, a Southwest junior, got her bus pass early because she's active in citywide student government, and it allows her to bus crosstown to district headquarters in northeast Minneapolis for meetings. It also lets her commute to the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul, where she volunteers. "It's a really safe way to get around," she said.

But on the other end of town, parents, teachers and students at Patrick Henry High School worry that the switch will drive away Hmong students, who make up almost half of the student body, as well as Latino students.

"These are parents who frequently do not want their kids on a city bus," said teacher Eva Lockhart. "They do not view them as safe."

Ze Thao already uses a bus pass she buys with earnings from her Walker Art Center job. The Henry senior is in her second year of commuting from Mendota Heights to Henry after a family move. She wakes at 4 a.m. for an odyssey through downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis, arriving by 7:55 a.m. when buses are on time, but often not until well into first hour. School policy requires tardy students to stay outside their classroom or go to an in-school detention room until second hour.

Thao said men frequently hit on her on the bus, asking where she's going, asking for her phone number, wanting to text her, despite the presence of her sophomore brother.

But Kiernat said students actually could be safer because they'll be with adults on buses and have access to transit police, and many students live closer to metro bus routes than they do to school bus routes now.

Metro Transit spokesman John Siqveland said high school and college students already take 10 million trips annually by transit bus without incident. He said the system has beefed up the hours plainclothes and uniformed police are on buses, and that transit crime has dropped 45 percent in four years.

Still, at Henry, some worry that Hmong enrollment may melt away to charter or suburban schools as it did at North several years ago when the Hmong students didn't feel safe on their way to school. Many switched to Hopkins.

Parent Mary Maddox, co-chair of the school council, said either she or her husband usually drops off their 11th-grader at school but they're comfortable with Metro Transit. But a Hmong friend of her daughter would rather walk home than take a metro bus if she misses the school bus.

Hmong families "will just silently leave," she said. "We cannot put up barriers. If a huge number of our children's families are uncomfortable with this, they should wait a year to bring them along."

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438