School attendance clipped by new transit passes
on October 6, 2010
It’s become an increasingly common scenario this fall: a parent loses his job, and his child suddenly stops showing up at school. “Your first thought is that they’re sick, but you don’t really know,” said Carmelita Reyes, the principal at Oakland International High School. “We have to call home to see what’s up, and it turns out they can’t afford the bus fare to school. I get a few calls like that every year. It’s like that in high schools all over Oakland.”
Oakland United School District (OUSD) officials blame this scenario on a recent policy change at AC Transit. In August, the agency, which provides bus service to 60,000 schoolchildren on school days, stopped selling the paper version of its discounted 31-day Youth Pass—an item that was as common as pencils in an Oakland student’s backpack. The decision was part of a larger plan to phase out paper tickets in favor of the electronic Clipper card, a Bay Area-wide pass that can be used to pay for rides on AC Transit, BART, Muni, and several other public transit networks.
The youth pass is still available at the same rate as before—$15 for anyone 18 or younger. But in its new form, as a debit loaded on to a Clipper account, many students are struggling to get their hands on a bus pass that used to be easy to obtain.
The Clipper system itself is not new. Though renamed this summer, the card, formerly known as TransLink, has been available alongside paper passes since 2002. But since AC Transit discontinued its paper youth pass this summer, the shift toward Clipper cards has presented problems for both students and school administrators. From a student’s perspective, the old paper passes meant a quick trip to Safeway or Walgreen’s with $15 cash in hand. A Clipper card, in contrast, requires each student to submit a formal application — either in the mail or in person during meetings AC Transit has been holding to explain the cards — along with proof of identity (such as a birth certificate or passport), and then to wait several weeks for the card to arrive by mail.
The challenge for OUSD administrators, who will be taking on the problem at a meeting of the school board’s Intergovernmental Relations Committee on Wednesday, is making sure that all their students can navigate this complicated process and arrive to class affordably and on time. Since OUSD has no school bus service of its own, it depends almost entirely on AC Transit to convey students from home to school and back.
AC Transit is eager to move its customers to the Clipper card for a variety of reasons—saving passengers the trouble of carrying pocket change, moving them more efficiently onto the bus, and cracking down on adults fraudulently purchasing youth passes. But the transition to the new system has not been smooth.
For example, by AC Transit’s definition, “youth” and “student” are not necessarily the same, a point that is vexing students and school administrators alike. While discounted youth passes are available for children 18 or younger, many high school students in Oakland have passed this age limit. Since these students are considered adults by AC Transit, they must pay the non-discounted fare, $2 per ride, which adds up to about $40 a month. The 31-day unlimited adult pass costs $80, more than five times the cost of its youth equivalent.
Although this age limit was already in place when only paper passes were used, Reyes said it was not strictly enforced. “If you looked young and carried a backpack, they used to give you the discount,” she said. In order to obtain a Clipper card at the discounted youth rate, students must submit proof of their age, like a birth certificate.
“It should be about being a student, not being a certain age,” said OUSD District One representative Jody London at a recent school board meeting. “The point is that kids should be able to get to school. What we’re hearing from principals in North Oakland is that that is not the case.”
By Reyes’s count, 176 students in OUSD are already past the AC Transit youth age limit—some as old as 21—and 589 more will turn 19 over the course of the school year. Of Oakland International’s 300 students, 72 will fall into this category. “We’re talking $58,000 in additional transportation costs for the students at this campus alone because of the age restrictions,” said Reyes. “That’s like the cost of a teacher to us. I can’t subsidize that.”
Delays in receiving the new youth Clipper passes have also been an issue, although AC Transit officials say this is a temporary problem. With the start of the school year, “we had an avalanche of youth apply for the cards,” said Clarence Johnson, spokesman for AC Transit. “It’s overwhelmed our ability to process the applications.” He said it normally takes about two weeks for a Clipper application to be processed, but the backlog has pushed that estimate to three. On the ground, however, Reyes reports that some of her students have waited as long as five weeks—and counting—to receive their cards.
In the front office at Oakland International, where the vast majority of students take the bus, and over 94% of their families meet the poverty guidelines for free or discounted lunch, it’s clear that transportation is a particularly salient issue. The walls are plastered with fliers, posters, and newspaper clippings about bus passes. Reyes keeps a copy of the Clipper youth pass application form on her computer’s desktop so she can easily print it out when students ask her for it. “Kids don’t know how to go to the bus authority, so they come to me instead,” she said.
Many high schools in Oakland use paper bus passes as incentives for programs such as tutoring, said Reyes. “We have kids who are so poor that they can’t even afford $15 for a bus pass,” she said. “Using the passes as incentives to attend tutoring works, because it’s discrete, and the kids feel like they earn them.” Since International started offering bus passes for students who attend tutoring in core subjects, Reyes estimates that enrollment in those programs has risen from 15 students per day to about 50 students.
Although AC Transit has supplied schools with provisional paper youth passes to ease the bumpy transition to Clipper cards, principals like Reyes worry that the paper passes will be phased out entirely in favor of Clipper. Without significant adjustments to the Clipper system, such a change would make it impossible for school administrators to satisfy federal requirements to provide transportation for certain groups, including disabled students, students living in foster care, and homeless students. In these cases, the law requires that bus passes be provided immediately upon request; with its long waiting period, the Clipper card cannot currently meet this standard. “The delays would be devastating,” she said. “Schools wouldn’t be able to give the kids passes for tutoring, internships, or in emergencies.”
Although AC Transit’s Johnson said that “any time you do something new or different, there will be an adjustment period,” the volume of problems among students was “certainly not anticipated.” Since students make up about a quarter of AC Transit’s weekday passengers, the agency has a clear interest in responding quickly to the school district’s concerns. The school board’s Intergovernmental Relations Committee, which will meet at 5 p.m. Wednesday at 1025 2nd Avenue, plans to discuss issues between the district and AC Transit, including Clipper pass delays, the future of paper passes, and discounts for students older than 18. But until all these issues are resolved, Johnson indicated that the schools’ provisional paper passes “will be around for as long as they’re needed.”
Reyes plans to bring several International students to the public meeting. “I want AC Transit to hear about these issues in [the students’] own words,” said Reyes. “A lot of the students struggle with English, but I want them to see that at the meeting. Imagine what it’s like for me to explain to them how to get a Clipper card.”
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