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In San Francisco, it’s not always easy to get to school

If you’ve lived in San Francisco long enough, you might have noticed that there are fewer yellow school buses crisscrossing the city. State budget cuts have forced the school district to cut its bus services to 98 percent of high school students. Only five middle schools still get busing. Even elementary schools have been losing service. And deeper cuts are promised for next year.

As a result, Muni has become the primary mode of transportation for most students. But the routes aren’t always direct. Many students take two or three buses. Some have to leave their homes by 6:30am to get to school by 8. And others sometimes can’t make it to school at all, because they can’t afford the fare. Mayor Lee has said he’s working to reduce transportation costs for students.

At 7:30 on a chilly Wednesday morning, Manuela Esteva is bustling around her house, getting her two kids ready for school. She says, “They’ve already told us they’re planning to cut the school bus. There’s not going to be the school bus by May of this year.”

Esteva’s children are aged 6 and 10. They attend Gordon Lau elementary school in Chinatown. And right now, there’s a yellow bus that takes them directly there from Esteva’s home in the Mission. Esteva says, “The advantage of taking the school bus is that I can drop off my daughters at 7:40. They’ll get there before classes start and it’s free.”

But when the yellow bus disappears, she’ll have to go with them to school. It’s a 40-minute trip, on two Muni buses – if she times it right. And it will cost her $7 every day – quite a lot for a single mom.  

“Another disadvantage of taking the MTA bus is that I have to go with them and I have to return back to my job and I lose time in doing my work,” says Esteva.

The school district is aware of the problem. “We now have 38 buses that are transporting students this year,” says San Francisco Unified School District spokeswoman Gentle Blythe. “And next year we’re looking at having 25 buses.”

Blythe says almost 1,000 students lost school bus services this year. Next year’s cuts will dig even deeper: the district expects to lose more than 30 percent of its transportation funding.

The district already has some idea of what can happen when school buses disappear: For the past four years, most San Francisco high school students haven’t had them. Only special needs students get access to buses.

Devoriea King is a junior at John O’Connell High School in the Mission. He says he sometimes ends up spending two and a half hours a day on public transit. It doesn’t help that he has to commute from Treasure Island. “There’s not enough buses to come out there,” he says. If he misses the bus, he misses 30 minutes of school. “And so with that being said, I’m truant because of it. And it’s affecting my grades,” says King.

Downtown High School principal Mark Alvarado says it’s often hard for students to pay for Muni. He says he gets hit up for bus fare several times a day. In the middle of the week, Alvarado had already leant out $6 to students.

Alvarado says another concern is safety. While most of his students get to school and back home safely, he’s also dealt with serious incidents in the past. “The bus is often a violent place,” says Alvarado. “And the students who are concerned with taking the bus – it’s [been] hard on them for a number of years.”

Though violent crime on Muni has dropped recently, just last week, a teenager was shot while riding a Muni bus in the middle of the afternoon. “We’ve had fatalities, we’ve had serious injuries. There’s a lot of stuff that happens. So the danger is real,” says Alvarado.

The school district is seeking workarounds. It set up programs to encourage group walking where possible, as well as bike-to-school days and a ride share website for parents.

Some city officials are also trying to improve the situation. Along with several community organizations, San Francisco Supervisor David Campos has been calling for free Muni passes for all youth between the ages of 5 and 17.

He says the program would serve several purposes. “For the public transit system in San Francisco to be sustained long term, you need to actually make sure people ride Muni," he says. According to Campos, instilling the habit in young people will ensure that they continue to ride the bus. Free passes for youth would also be an investment in education. "We believe that kids should go to school and not being able to afford it should not get in the way of them going to school,” says Campos.

Campos estimates that the proposed two-year pilot will cost about $17.5 million. An alternative plan currently on the table calls for a $5-dollar monthly youth pass.

O’Connell High School student Devoriea King says he hopes the free youth pass is implemented. “It would be easier for me to wake up in the morning myself knowing I don’t have to burn money out of pocket just to go to school.”

In the meantime, parent Manuela Esteva says she and her neighbors are working together to figure out how to get their kids to school. “We need to organize among our mothers, and among neighbors, to get our kids to school. In our community we can support each other by having a day where one of us takes a group of children and we split it up that way.”

Muni’s board of directors will vote on the free youth pass April 3rd. Even if it passes, it might be months before the program is fully implemented. Until then, San Francisco youth and their families will have to keep digging in their pockets to get to school.