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In Chicago, some find public transit fares linked to school attendance

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It’s just after final bell at Wells Community High School on Chicago’s West Side, and office manager Georgina Williams is spending this bit of her afternoon the usual way – handing out CTA cards.

Students swarm Williams for what they call brown cards or bus passes. To the Chicago Transit Authority, however, they're known as student reduced fare cards, and all full-time Chicago students can buy them -- for a dollar.

But even that seemingly low price started to concern some staff at Wells two years ago, when more and more kids were coming in and saying they couldn’t afford the dollar each way.

So Wells decided to use some of its discretionary dollars to give out free cards to 60 of the most needy kids. They sign up at the beginning of the year, and there's a waiting list for those who don't make it early enough. Kids who don't keep their attendance up are eliminated from the program, and new ones take their place. 

Williams said the demand in this school of 600 students is high, and getting higher. They've spent over $5,000 this year alone; that's the same amount the school spent for all of last year.

Nineteen-year-old Joey Brown is a Wells student who gets the free passes to use on trains or buses. He lives with his cousins on the Northwest side, about a 45-minute commute from Wells on the 66 bus. He’s part of the 60 percent of Wells students who come from outside the neighborhood.

He said that he had a job when he started school this year, but it wasn’t enough to help pay for transportation.

“If you don’t got no money or no job that you can buy bus cards, because certain bus cards you have to buy…the 30 day, you have to buy $86. And for the one days, you have to pay $5 for one day, just to ride the bus."

"Yeah," he continued. "That’s a lot of money.”

“When you get poorer because you keep giving money out of pocket, and you realize that the kids are hitting up staff as well as yourself for money, you have to come up with something for the kids, and then that’s what I had thought of," said Ernesto Matias, the principal of Wells. It was his idea to start the free passes program, called the Transportation Incentive Program (T.I.P.), to curtail that kind of begging at school.

And though Matias says he can’t prove it, he thinks it’s helping. He said attendance at Wells went up 7 percent last year, and he’s seeing positive trends this year as well.

Still, it’s an expensive proposition. Power House High, on the West Side, managed to get a private donor to pay for cards for its students last year, but funding has since dried up. This leaves most CPS students left with the next best alternative to free cards -- the reduced fare passes.

Barbara Radner is director of DePaul University’s Center for Urban Education. She believes the reduced fare system comes with its own set of challenges. She – and a lot of school staff, parents and kids WBEZ talked to – said what kids have to go through just to get a reduced pass is way too convoluted.

“If you’re going to solve a problem, I think you should not solve it with a complicated solution," said Radner.

How complicated? Students can buy their own reduced fare cards, which seems simple enough – at first. To be a part of the system, you have to have a permit pass that costs $5 – which you can either reload with more money or use with your separately purchased brown card. That $5 doesn’t go on the permit card, but if you use just the permit, rides are 85 cents. And you need to have your student ID on you.

To buy a permit, you can apply though the CTA (payment by money order only) or sign up through your school, a process that changes depending on the school structure. You then have to go to stores like Jewel-Osco, Walgreen’s or a currency exchange to buy the brown cards. The CTA estimates they provide 150,000 rides to students using reduced fare cards, two-thirds of whom go to public school.

"The reduced fare card solution does indeed give the kid, in a sense, more money, because they have the reduced fare, so there’s a better chance of that kid having enough pennies to get on the bus," said Radner. But what it doesn't do is simply say, in Radner's words, "‘Kid, you are a Chicago public high school kid, we want you in the building, here’s your fare card. That’s it – get to school.'"

Radner thinks a free card could really help the attendance problem in Chicago high schools. Last year, the average Chicago high school attendance rate was at 83 percent.

“It will not help 100 percent of the kids," said Radner. "But it will help the kid who, as they get up in the morning, among their problems is, the problem that they don’t have enough bus fare. So it’s going to be a choice between the bus or eating. It could be that serious.”

If it could be that serious, it seems likely that CPS would be looking into strategies that could help. When asked to comment on schools using their own funds to pay for student transportation, they said in a statement, “Discretionary funds exist to help schools address their specific needs and principals can certainly use these funds to help pay for CTA cards in order to help student get to and from school.”

But when asked about whether he wanted to see a free student fare card in Chicago, CEO Jean-Claude Brizard was resoundingly positive.

"The answer is yes," said Brizard. "I’d love to see us be able to do that, again, being used to the New York system. I think it’s something that can happen, and we should make happen, if there is a problem."

Brizard is familiar with free student transportation; he grew up with it in New York City. He brought free rides to Chicago on the first day of school this year, though those were paid with donations from private businesses.

In New York City, high school students get three free rides a day if they live more than a mile from school, and a half fare card if they live closer. Those cards are automatically passed out at school.

But the roughly 585,000 New York students that use the free or reduced cards do so at a cost that’s probably sobering for budget-strapped Chicago: New York's free transit for students accounts for more than $217 million a year in lost revenue for the Metropolitan Transit Authority there. That cost is partially reimbursed by the City and State of New York.

It’s tough on New York too. In fact, last year, it took mass protests on behalf of students and parents to convince officials not to cancel the program.

But to Brizard, the decision will be based on more than budget.

"What I’m saying very simply is that I don’t have enough information to determine [whether a free fare card is feasible]," said Brizard. "It’s something I would love to sit with the CTA leaders and just discuss, but before I do that, I’m going to ask my demographers to give me some idea as to how many kids are traveling, how far they’re traveling to school, so I can walk in armed with the information to have an intelligent conversation about the best way to solve this problem."

But many teachers, parents and students are convinced there’s a direct link between transportation and attendance. 

And as Brizard looks into ways to make travel better, he’s sure to hear from a lot of them.

LaCreshia Birts contributed reporting to this story.

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