District hopes bus passes will increase attendance

on December 9, 2009

A program to provide bus passes to high school students in West Contra Costa County is looking for more takers. The program began this school year and has funding to provide up to 2,000 students with a bus pass worth $15, either for AC Transit or for the WestCAT system. So far only about 1,500 students have signed up.

“We see a very strong correlation between transportation and attending school,” said Marin Trujillo, spokesman for the West Contra Costa Unified School District.

Trujillo’s office, in conjunction with Supervisor John Gioia’s office, talked to students before launching the program to get a sense of whether it would be helpful, and why.

“To get to high school sometimes, some of these kids if they can’t afford a bus pass, the only other way of transportation is to walk,” said Terrance Cheung, chief of staff for Gioia’s office.

Cheung said walking sometimes exposes them to gang activity, whether as victims or as potential recruits. His office also found that many of the crimes teenagers commit, like graffiti or robbery, happen after school. Bus passes could help students get to after-school programs or jobs more easily and possibly cut down on the mischief.

To be eligible for a free pass, students must be enrolled in the existing federal free or reduced-cost lunch program. To keep the pass, they must maintain a 95 percent attendance rate. Trujillo’s office is working on marketing ideas, such as a recently-launched poster campaign, to promote the program and fill the remaining 500 spots. He suspects the program hasn’t drawn more applications because it’s new and people don’t know about it.

“We thought we were going to have all the slots full, but this is our first year, so we’re still learning what works,” Trujillo said.

In addition to the value of having kids in school, the program has an added benefit for the district. Some of the district’s funding from the state is based on school attendance rates, so administrators have an incentive to keep those as high as possible. The district also receives federal funding for students enrolled in the free and reduced-cost lunch program, so the more students enrolled, the more money the district gets.

The program focuses on high school students because, compared with younger students, they tend to live further from school and are more likely to have after-school jobs they can reach by public transportation.

The passes are funded by sales taxes through the voter-approved Measure J. Initial estimates projected that sales in the county would garner about $14.5 million over time, which is estimated to buy bus passes for about 25 years. Due to the recession, however, recent sales have been bringing the program less than a quarter of what officials expected. The fluctuations could prove challenging for the program in the future.

For now, though, officials just want to get the word out so that more students can make use of the free passes.

Students interested in applying for the Student Bus Pass Program can download an application for passes from the district’s home page at www.wccusd.net and submit it to their school, or contact Marin Trujillo at the school district at (510) 307-4527. To be eligible, students must be enrolled in the national free and reduced-cost lunch program.

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