Bus passes open horizons for TPS students

A helping hand for students with transportation issues

4/3/2017 | TACOMA, Washington

​Sometimes, breaking down barriers to student achievement requires complex and difficult interventions. And sometimes the simplest solutions work wonders.

Like a bus pass.

“It’s just a major help in my life right now,” said Wilson High School senior Makayla Greene. “It’s helping me to be stable.”

At 18, Makayla has already overcome more obstacles than most adults.

Eight years ago, Makayla’s single father confronted a problem with one of his legs. Originally misdiagnosed as a pulled muscle, Makayla said, doctors later discovered the pain resulted from an aggressive cancer, and within a short time her father was gone.

Makayla has only recently connected with her mother, who has never been a consistent presence in her life. For years Makayla lived with a grandmother, but once she turned 18 and could no longer collect her father’s Social Security payments, grandma’s fixed income couldn’t support them both. Makayla had to move out.

Fortunately, an elderly couple she knows from her Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall took her in. Unfortunately they live outside Wilson’s school bus coverage area. Without a bus pass, Makayla would have to change schools on top of everything else. 

“It’s been a struggle,” Makayla said. “But I’m trying to do things that would make my dad proud of me. So I want to go to school to become a teacher. I really love kids, especially younger ones. They’re so loving and caring.”

Tacoma Public Schools and Pierce Transit began a pilot program in September of 2016, to offer free bus passes to students at Lincoln and Foss high schools. The program’s success convinced the district to expand the free passes to all Tacoma high schools.

Schools don’t require students to take the passes; the program aims to get passes specifically to students who don’t have access to school bus service, participate in afterschool programs or have other difficulties getting to school and home consistently.

Or, as in Makayla’s case, students who simply need a helping hand.

“It’s helped me save money,” Makayla said. “I can use the money for other things, for food, or hygiene, or clothes. It helps me a lot to get wherever I need to go.”

In addition to her regular school commute, Makayla uses the pass to get to an internship she’s taking at DeLong Elementary School, where she works with kindergarteners.

“I go there Mondays and Fridays, and interact with the kids,” she said. “I read to them and teach them.”

Thanks to the pass, she said, Makayla also frequently stays after school to study and do homework.

The district expects the bus pass expansion to improve attendance and drive up students’ opportunities to participate in more after-school activities—both of which lead to higher graduation rates, research shows.

 Students at the district’s School of the Arts, Science and Math Institute, and Industrial Design Engineering and Art schools live all over the district and receive bus passes under a contract with Pierce Transit that took effect in 2010. The Willie Stewart Academy, Oakland High School and Remann Hall get passes under the same contract, which provides the district 1,525 passes at an annual cost of $138.24 per student, a yearly total of $224,105. The pilot program added another 1,000 passes, with the cost per pass dropping to $112.71, bringing the grand total up to $298,604. The district issued more than 900 new passes to students through March 2017, under the expansion.

In effect the district bought nearly twice as many passes, but the overall cost of the program only increased by about 30 percent. And the more passes bought, the lower the price per pass will go.

District officials chose Lincoln and Foss for the pilot program partially to expand access to the special offerings at each school, said Lincoln Principal Pat Erwin. Lincoln has an extended-day format four days per week, and Foss offers the academically challenging International Baccalaureate program. In practice, however, the bus passes have proven effective for other reasons.

“The ORCA pilot program has been integral to supporting our interventions with students that have (truancy) issues,” said Foss principal Lysandra Ness. “It has also been a component to support our athletes and students to support their transportation needs that fall outside the TPS transportation schedule.”

Students can request applications for the passes from their guidance counselors. Applications require a signature by a parent or guardian. The passes bear the Tacoma Public Schools logo and replacing a lost or stolen card costs $10.

Makayla’s expanding her horizons now, partly thanks to her card. Before she got the ORCA pass she had to buy her own. By saving a little money, suddenly new possibilities have opened up.

“I’ve been accepted to Clover Park (Technical College) and Tacoma Community College,” she said. “But I’m also applying to college in the Dominican Republic. I might be able to get an education and see another country.”