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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.

Carmelita Reyes

Carmelita Reyes, Oakland International High School principal, says issues with AC Transit’s new Clipper passes are making it difficult for some students to get to school.

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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  1. Alina on October 6, 2010 at 12:10 pm

    I’d like to point out that $2 per ride is $4 per day. If you go to school about 20 days a month, then the cost adds up to about $80 a month, not $40 a month as stated in the article. Lots of money and indeed far more than the $15 for the youth card.

  2. Anne-Marie on October 6, 2010 at 12:22 pm

    No one should be having to struggle to get to school like that. I have lived in a lot of cities, even cities with a sizeable rural poor population, but only in the Bay Area have I witnessed students unable to reach their school. It was a problem when I was a teacher in Richmond- kids were forced to take the bus 45 plus minutes on a daily basis, resulting in half the first period classes almost never attending. When it is such an economic and social struggle just to get there, one isn’t thinking about school when he or she is at school. It’s cutting off access to education at the most basic level- showing up. It appears to me, too, that AC Transit didn’t really think through the entire system before the shift. Otherwise, they would have considered that a 19-year- old high school student who actually is motivated to stay in school deserves the same break as his or her 16-year-old counterpart.

  3. JJ on October 6, 2010 at 2:28 pm

    No one thought it through completely; those in charge are not the ones who actually use Clipper. Getting the discount is more time consuming than they want to let on – and even then, half the transponders don’t work, and you have to have the fare ready in cash when that happens.

    Also, the passes are now based on the calendar month, not when you purchased it. Used to be if you bought one on the 7th, it was good for 31 days from the 7th, but no more.

    I agree that “student” means student, with no regard to age. Anything else is nonsense, but then again, it is a revenue opportunity.

  4. m on October 6, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    “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.”

    What the heck? 21 and still in high-school? What is wrong with this picture?

  5. Akit on October 6, 2010 at 3:14 pm

    The Clipper folks have been doing youth AC Transit sign-up events for nearly a year, and the organization has been warning youth to prepare for the transition. Slacking-off is not a good idea, and now they are paying the price.

    Also, if someone registers for the Clipper card for AC Transit, they can also buy a temporary mag stripe pass at the sign-up event while they wait for their new Clipper card to be mailed to them.

    Basically, there’s no more excuses.

  6. Lillian Mongeau on October 6, 2010 at 3:31 pm

    @ m – Oakland International High School serves a high percentage of refugee and recent immigrant students from all over the world. Many of them arrive in the U.S. as older teens, but still start school here at the 9th grade level. This makes OIHS’s student population older than average. Either way, 21 is the cut-off for youth services in California even for those with special circumstances.

  7. Teresa Chin on October 6, 2010 at 3:44 pm

    @Alina – thanks for the comment. You’re right, the cost for an “adult” student would be $80 per month to go to and from school. Forty dollars is the cost for a rider under 18 to go to and from school, based on $1 for a single ride. Good catch!

  8. Carole on October 6, 2010 at 4:17 pm

    Why is it necessary to “apply” for the Clipper card? And frankly if someone is 32 and still trying to make it though high school, I say good for them.

  9. CJ on October 6, 2010 at 4:17 pm

    Just curious… does the school participate in the BART Orange ticket program to get half-price fare tickets for these kids?

  10. Tia on October 6, 2010 at 5:30 pm

    JJ, you obviously don’t use Clipper on ACTransit. I use it every day and when the transponders don’t work, the driver just waves us on. As for a 31 day pass, oddly enough, they’re still exactly what they say they are.

    Educate yourself before ranting, it helps prevent foot-in-mouth disease.

  11. marco on October 6, 2010 at 6:06 pm

    Why don’t the schools just offer the Clipper cards to their students. They already have their info and age.

  12. gb52 on October 6, 2010 at 10:35 pm

    Here’s an idea, issue “provisional” cards so users can use the card while their information is being processed (simply link the card number to the application number), OR go ahead and provide “youth” cards to schools by request. Schools can issue them much like books to students with parent permission. The cards could be given out as generic youth passes, and then either have to be returned at the end of the school year, or a full application should be filed AFTER receiving the card. Then the individual youth will be linked as usual.

  13. […] Kaplan, dressed in a black suit and plum-colored blouse, said her solution would be to get the free bus passes back for students. “We have to talk about the root causes and we have to stop blaming the young people,” she […]

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