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Transit as a Teaching Tool

September 15, 2009 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow Conrad deFiebre

Free bus passes for Minneapolis summer school students drew heavy use during a 3-1/2-week experiment in July and lavish praise from both school and Metro Transit officials.

The 1,500 high schoolers who got the passes took 54,000 rides, an average of 36 apiece. That means they used them for more than commuting to 16 days of summer classes. And that's just fine with education leaders, who saw the pilot program as much more than simple transportation.

"Minneapolis is so rich with cultural heritage," Brenda Cassellius, associate superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools, told the Star Tribune. "We need to teach our kids about all these wonderful places that are out there for them to learn from or engage with."

Exploring museums, businesses and other attractions outside their own neighborhoods isn't a possibility for all Minneapolis public school students, more than half of them from poor families. But that can be as important to a young person's education as classroom learning, Cassellius said.

Negotiations are underway to extend the program to more students in the regular school year, said Bob Gibbons, Metro Transit spokesman. "We're very interested in developing student ridership into lifelong ridership," he added. "We're also thinking of working with some St. Paul charter schools."

For the summer school experiment, the Minneapolis schools paid $46 each for Metro Transit "GoTo" cards that were effective July 7-31. School officials judged the program a big success, with barely 1 percent of the passes lost and no misbehavior linked to the enhanced teenage mobility.

While the ease of getting around town may have tempted some to cut class, it was counterbalanced by the school district's power to cancel a repeat truant's transit privileges. The transit pass could also be used as an incentive to keep up with homework.

But the advantages go beyond behavior modification, school officials say. Taxpayers saved 37 percent off the $73 the district used to spend on bus tokens for summer students, said Mary Barrie, director of alternative and extended learning. And "GoTo" passes could make course offerings from all Minneapolis high schools available to students district-wide while reducing outlays for school buses.

Meanwhile, Barrie and Metro Transit are discussing a "GoTo" program for the 800 to 1,000 students in contract alternative high schools who now get bus tokens, which cost the district more and don't offer extracurricular mobility or diligence incentives. Barrie said she'd also like to provide the passes to students at the three district-run alternative high schools, who now commute by school bus.

Many of those students are chronic truants, Barrie said, and the "GoTo" carrot could make a big difference in their attendance.

In Denver, for example, Barrie said, most high schoolers ride transit rather than yellow buses to class. While giving passes to all Minneapolis high school students isn't under formal consideration now, Barrie said the "kids and staff loved" the summer school program.

Gibbons said Metro Transit was "very delighted" with it, but continuing it will depend on school and transit officials agreeing on "the right price point" for passes.

Here's hoping that happens. It would squeeze more use and efficiency out of the Twin Cities bus and rail network and broaden high schoolers' education beyond the classroom while still making it worth their while to show up there.

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