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Youth group seeks free bus access for high schoolers

For Brown students, a school ID is a ticket to anywhere in the state. But Providence public high school students get no free pass from the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority.

Students who live within three miles of their school must pay $62 a month to ride RIPTA buses. Youth 4 Change, a Providence youth activism organization composed of student and adult representatives from four youth organizations, wants to increase underprivileged students' access to public transportation.

Though organizers acknowledge that funding additional free services is an uphill battle, both activists and policymakers agree on the need for change.

Paige Clausius-Parks, network director for Youth 4 Change, said access to busing became a larger problem in 2009, when a state audit of the health care system eliminated funding provisions in many plans that gave public high school students free monthly bus passes. Clausius-Parks said the change forced nearly all students within a three-mile radius of their schools to pay the additional fee. As a result, bad weather sometimes became an insurmountable obstacle for students trying to get to school. "It was definitely an unintended consequence," she said.

Students need bus passes for unlimited access to school resources, including after-school activities, which are increasingly crucial for college applications, Clausius-Parks said. She added that the policy constitutes an unfair financial and logistical burden on families, especially those with multiple children and those near the edges of the three-mile radius.

The campaign held its inaugural event last Tuesday at the Salon on Eddy Street. At the meeting, Youth 4 Change sought to increase public awareness of the issue, which the organization's youth leaders have been researching and working on since October 2010.

"This is a large effort, and it's not going to be just Youth 4 Change that has the answers — it has to be the whole community," Clausius-Parks said.

Three members of the Providence School Board attended the event. They left impressed by the campaign launch and inspired to address the issue, said Nick Hemond, school board member and chairman of the newly created committee charged with examining policy changes. Though Hemond was unable to attend, he said he could relate to the youth activists as a 2005 Classical High School graduate who was active in student government and lived 2.8 miles from school. "In terms of priorities, it's something that's right on our radar screen," he said.

The school board ultimately has the power to change the busing policy. While he could not speak on behalf of the board, Hemond said the primary obstacle to changing the policy is funding rather than disagreement on the problem.

The school board's policy committee is determining the funding possibilities, he said. "We have to get a sense of what we have for resources and what is the most efficient way to use those resources."

With both the Providence and RIPTA budgets stretched thin, Youth 4 Change is looking for more innovative funding solutions.

Clausius-Parks said the organization is researching opportunities for foundation support. She pointed to a recent meeting with an executive at Citizens Bank, who she said seemed open to paying more money for RIPTA ads in order to fund discounted bus passes.

Charles Odimgbe, RIPTA's CEO, said while he is receptive to the Youth 4 Change campaign, RIPTA is in no position to fund the change. RIPTA is currently confronting a $4.6 million operating budget shortfall. "We will do whatever thing that we could to not only give them the moral support, but also to help them, if they have any initiatives, to flesh out some of these initiatives," he said.

Several private Rhode Island universities — including Brown — get free bus service in exchange for voluntary fees paid to the city. RIPTA is investigating similar arrangements that would allow public universities to tack on transportation fees to student tuition, Odimgbe said. But because public primary and secondary schools do not charge tuition, he said, there is no similar revenue stream to fund transportation.

Susan Lusi, interim superintendent of Providence public schools, supports the overarching goals of the campaign, said Christina O'Reilly, facilitator of communications and media relations for the Providence Public School District. "The district absolutely respects and supports what Youth 4 Change is doing," she said. Lusi is planning to walk to school in solidarity with a student who lives just within the three-mile radius this Friday or Monday afternoon, O'Reilly said.

Though the school board is the district's policymaking body, the superintendent and her staff provide research and expertise for policy considerations, O'Reilly said.

Currently, budget constraints have forced the district to enforce the three-mile policy much more strictly, whereas students could get exceptions for long or difficult commutes in previous years. About 98 percent of the budget is fixed, making it difficult to reallocate funds for student bus passes, O'Reilly said. Regardless, Youth 4 Change's efforts have amplified the drive for reform. "It's something that is certainly top of mind, and there's heightened awareness for sure," O'Reilly said.

At the moment, roughly 2,300 students receive free bus passes, while some others receive 10 free rides a month through a state program called Rite Care, Clausius-Parks said. The total cost of obtaining free passes for all of these students would likely be more than $4 million, O'Reilly said.

Clausius-Parks said she has been impressed by the dedication of the Youth 4 Change student activists. "This is it for them, this is about their daily lives, and the passion that comes with that is just completely inspiring," she said.


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