Starting next year, low-income students in Seattle will be eligible for a free ORCA card.
Rainier Beach High School sophomore Mariam Bayo nearly failed some of her classes last year because she had trouble getting to school on time.
Because she lives within two miles of the South Seattle high school, she wasn’t eligible for a free bus pass. No one could drive her, and she didn’t have enough for bus fare, so she had to walk. She has asthma, so walking was even harder than for most students. By the time she arrived at school, she was already tired.
This year, she has a free transit pass, thanks to a Seattle Public Schools pilot program for 50 low-income students.
“I’m on time,” Bayo said at Rainier Beach this week. “Now I’m getting A’s and B’s.”
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Now she’s helped many other students get the same assistance.
Starting next year, the program will expand to more Seattle middle- and high-school students who qualify for free or reduced lunch — thanks to the efforts of Bayo and other Rainier Beach students who lobbied for the change. The Seattle City Council’s 2016 budget, approved in late November, includes $1 million to pay for the passes.
Councilmembers and transit advocates credit the students, who marched from district headquarters in Sodo to Seattle City Hall last summer, and testified about the difficulties they faced getting to school. They also hosted a town-hall meeting in late October to share stories about their long, and sometimes unsafe, commutes.
Their efforts caught the eye of Seattle City Council members, including Mike O’Brien, who marched with the students during the summer. Without the Rainier Beach students, the investment wouldn’t have happened, he said.
“Budgets should reflect our priorities, and I am proud that this budget includes new funding for programs that will advance racial and economic equity in our city,” O’Brien said in a statement after the City Council vote.
The students say they consider the funding a victory for social justice.
“We achieved our goal not just from evidence, but from our passion and drive,” sophomore Katera Howard said. “It was us saying ‘we’re going to fight for this.’ ”
The way it works now, Seattle students only get free bus passes from the district if they live more than two miles from their school (and only if the student goes to his or her neighborhood-assigned school.)
The Rainier Beach students, who were part of a summer program called Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools, argued that the policy had a disparate impact on low-income students, who might live within the two-mile walk zone but couldn’t cover the $1.50 bus fare. And some students worried about walking through neighborhoods with high crime rates, especially in the dark if they have after-school activities.
“Fifteen dollars per week, or $54 for a monthly pass, is too much for low-income families to pay just to get their kids to school,” said Katie Wilson, co-founder of the Seattle Transit Riders Union, which worked with the campaign. “For many low-income students, public transit means freedom.”
Under the new program, any student who is eligible for the federal free- or reduced-price lunch program and lives 1-2 miles from their school will be able to get a bus pass. Across the district, about 20,000 students qualify for free- or reduced-price meals, according to Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction data from 2014-15. That’s about 37 percent of Seattle’s public-school students.
At Rainier Beach, more than 120 students have already signed up for the new program, according to Rainier Beach social worker Chelsea Gallegos.
The City Council, Seattle Public Schools and Metro Transit haven’t finalized all the program’s details. This year, if a student with a pass is late or doesn’t come to school, he or she loses the card, and that probably will be true next year, too, Gallegos said.
While they’re happy about the transit victory, organizers and students said the City Council approval is about more than the bus passes.
“This is not just about transportation,” said Jerrell Davis, who works with Freedom Schools. “This is about their livelihood, about justice. It’s connected to something larger.”
This story, first published Dec. 6, has been corrected. The new program will cover students who live 1-2 miles from their schools, not all students. Students who live within one mile won’t be eligible for free passes.