Note: This story originally appeared in the May, 2016 issue of the Washington Park Profile. It resulted in Denver-area Regional Transportation District (RTD) keeping necessary South High School-servicing bus routes in operation.
For a substantial number of Denver South High students, getting to school is a challenge. Though Denver Public Schools (DPS) provides school buses for elementary and middle school students, high school students must get to school on their own or by using DPS-provided Regional Transportation District (RTD) passes. Though provided at half rate, these passes cost students $24.50 per month. This means students pay $245 dollars a year to get to and from school.
South High’s neighborhood boundaries stretch about four miles in each direction. However, many Newcomer Program students, students recently arrived to the US, live in neighborhoods well beyond the boundary even though South is a school designated to serve these students.
South High Digital Media Club participant Amran Muse helps her fellow students plan their project timeline. The club has met since the beginning of the fall semester and has surveyed nearly 400 of the school’s 1,600 students. Photo by Dr. Margaret Thompson.
And, with DPS allowing students to choose their school (various factors depending), many other native-to-Denver students come from far away. This means kids must rely on RTD buses or trains. Or three buses.
This is the case for South High junior Cesar Robles, who leaves home at 5:30a.m. to get to school on time. Robles usually gets home around 5:00p.m. Now his problem is RTD just cancelled a leg of the 73 bus between Quebec and Yosemite which Robles—and an undetermined but significant number of other students—until recently used to reach the westbound 11 bus that drops them off at South.
For other South students, the problem is getting home. When South lets out at 2:50p.m., the 11 buses that serve the stops along Louisiana Avenue arrive on the half hour. Often these buses fill quickly and few of the many waiting students can initially board.
Robles and other students are a part of a South High club called the Digital Media Club. The club meets weekly with two DU Professors—Dr. Lynn Clark and Dr. Margaret Thompson—to discuss issues of social concern and how the students could find solutions to those problems through the use of digital and social media.
The club this year surveyed South students about their transportation experiences and also filmed the bus stops. In one particularly moving portion of a film the students made of their clips, an RTD driver has to turn students away: “I can only take ten of you,” he says to dozens of South students crowding the stop.
The club showed the film and an associated media presentation to assembled RTD and Transportation Solutions representatives. Transportation Solutions is a public-private partnership which, according to its website, has been in existence since 1997 and aims to “expand transportation choice, reduce miles people drive alone and create walkable places and livable communities.”
The presentation concluded with recommendations for RTD. They are:
Adjust after-school bus schedules to allow more students on at one time so students can return home in a reasonable amount of time.
Return Route 73 to service. For many students, the cancellation of Route 73 turns a two-bus ride into a three-bus ride.
Reduce the cost of fare for students during the school year. For many South High families, any added expense is a large burden.
Work more closely with DPS to make transportation efficient for students.
Make bus stops near schools covered so that students who must wait are not exposed to bad weather.
Add an additional bus to routes most used by students at the end of the school day.
The presentation was based off a survey composed by the Digital Media Club students. The students surveyed 376 of South’s nearly 1600 students so as to understand in detail the transportation realities of their peers. Eighty-six percent of survey respondents said they sometimes or always take public transportation to school; sixty-three students surveyed reported taking the 73 bus. More than one-in-five said their commute is over 50 minutes each way, and two-thirds of the student riders reported witnessing full buses pass them by because of overcrowding.
In their research, the Digital Media Club students discovered most all school districts adjoining their own provide transportation upon request to all students—elementary through high—living outside a preset distance from school. The size of the exception zone varies with age: most districts set their cut off at one mile for elementary, one to two for middle and two to three miles for high school students.
“The relationship between DPS and RTD could be improved,” particularly if the District were to “provide data on heavy traffic times” and at schools’ start and end times.
When asked her opinion of why DPS does not bus more of its students, Professor Lynn Clark pointed out that the club had “attempted to discuss why this is with DPS’ head of transportation, but calls and emails were not returned.” Bill James of the RTD Board of Directors, in attendance at the meeting, suggested contacting their Board of Education representative, Anne Rowe. The Profile intends to pursue comment.
DPS’s extends transportation to some students living within the boundaries of their home or neighborhood school. The district does not claim responsibility for transporting students who have chosen to attend schools outside the boundaries of their neighborhood, though there are exceptions.
Jeff Dunning, senior service planner for RTD who was also in attendance at the meeting, agreed with James, noting “The relationship between DPS and RTD could be improved,” particularly if the District were to “provide data on heavy traffic times” and at schools’ start and end times.
Dunning congratulated the students on their excellent work and asked them to continue their research, requesting in particular they provide RTD a distribution map of where South’s students live and information on how many students had been adversely affected by the curtailed service on the 73 route. “We could keep doing the school trip along that stretch, and that would at least help,” Dunning said.
Dunning speculated that despite an acute driver shortage it might be possible to increase the capacity of the afternoon 11 bus so that more students could get on. “Afternoons are easy to fix,” he said, but added, “You need to let your principal know that variable schedules add to the problem.”
Transportation Solutions staffer Loralyn Fabian offered a suggestion that if students could generate a map of where they commute from, some van and/or car pools could be set up. “The GoDenver app (godenverapp.com) combines various transportation options to select the most efficient route,” she added.
In the end, though, the students see the matter as black and white. As two students say to close the club’s video, “English is already a barrier; don’t make transportation a barrier.”