Free transit passes for Minneapolis students are success

StarTribune.com

United States

By Emily Johns

The district’s experiment in giving teens unlimited access to the city has worked — and calmed fears of unruly youths crowding the buses.

The idea of giving thousands of boisterous Minneapolis high school students unlimited access to the city’s transportation system was apparently a little heartburn-inducing for Metro Transit officials.

Thousands of teenagers riding buses? Whenever they want?

“There is always the fear that, well, Minneapolis adult ridership doesn’t want a lot of kids on the bus,” Associate Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said in describing how Metro Transit officials reacted when she suggested they give students bus passes. “There were also worries that maybe there will be behavior incidents, or maybe kids will lose their passes and it will be a huge administrative nightmare.”

The Minneapolis School District piloted a program with its summer school students with hopes that a similar program could eventually be incorporated during the school year.

The district gave 1,500 students something called a “GoTo” pass, which is a bus pass that the district purchased from Metro Transit and gave to students for free.

While the use for summer students was mostly practical — to get them to and from school — district officials are dreaming big about the possibilities if every student in the city could use a bus pass whenever they wanted.

The district wants to give the city’s students — more than half of whom come from poor families — unlimited access to one of the district’s greatest assets: Minneapolis itself.

“Some of our students never get outside of their neighborhoods to explore, go to museums, go and see the city,” said Cassellius. “These are things that are afforded to our affluent kids.”

The power of the pass, district officials say, is that the schools also could turn them on and off to encourage certain behaviors.

If a student’s attendance lags at school, no light rail trips to the mall. If you turn in more homework than you did last semester, enjoy your trip to the Walker.

Cassellius said that this summer’s experiment should help calm the fears of Metro Transit officials who worried about unruly teenagers using the buses at night and on weekends.

Over the summer, “We had 54,000 rides, only 20 passes were lost, and there were zero behavior incidents,” Cassellius said.

According to Mary Barrie, the district’s director of alternative and extended learning programs, the pilot this summer also saved the district money.

Normally, the district gives its high school students tokens to use on city buses to get to and from school in the summer. Tokens cost $73 for each summer school student, she said, compared with the $46 the district paid for each “GoTo” pass.

Cassellius hopes that eventually, under an ongoing redesign of programming at the city’s high schools, students could even use the passes to travel between high schools to take classes their own schools don’t offer.

In the end, Cassellius said, educating the city’s students isn’t just a responsibility for the school district. It’s the job of the city as a whole.

“Minneapolis is so rich with cultural heritage. We want students to feel socially responsible for our community, engage the community in a positive way, and support local business. We need to teach our kids about all these wonderful places that are out there for them to learn from or engage with.”

Emily Johns • 612-673-7460

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