AS ST. PAUL JOHNSON moves its start time an hour later this fall, riding the classic yellow school bus may become a thing of the past for most students.
Johnson will begin a year-long pilot program in which school will begin at 8:30 a.m. and, as a result of the later start time, students will ride city buses to school instead of yellow school buses. The school will provide students with Metro Transit bus fare.
“If you change the start time at the high schools, it has an impact on all of the other yellow school bus systems,” said Micheal Thompson, the Johnson Senior High School principal. “We would have to have a different way to get kids to and from school.”
If this pilot goes well, later start times and city bus travel could spread to all the schools in the district, according to Jacqueline Statum Allen, the school district’s assistant director of strategic planning and policy. It would follow suit of Minneapolis’ transition to public busing a few years ago.
Prompted by University of Minnesota research that says about two-thirds of high school students aren’t getting at least eight hours of sleep at night, the St. Paul Public Schools district decided last year to start school at 8:30 a.m. instead of 7:30 a.m.
However, the district ran into a roadblock with transportation.
The district discovered that it would either have to almost entirely rearrange its yellow bus transportation system, or use Metro Transit. But changing the yellow busing system would mean elementary students would have to wait outside in the dark during winter mornings, according to school officials.
When the plan was first announced, parents generally thought the additional hour of sleep was a good thing, according to Statum Allen, but some were uncomfortable with students using Metro Transit busing.
“It is a change, and it’s understandable,” she said. “They are unfamiliar with public transportation and they are familiar with the yellow school bus, so that’s what they are comfortable with.”
Students at Johnson will receive all-you-can-ride cards for the school year, allowing them to travel anywhere on buses or train lines between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m. each day.
“It increases the flexibility for students,” Thompson said. “I think that all students should take advantage of programs at school like sports and extracurriculars. And that’s more of a possibility, since we know that they’ll have that way to get home.”
Seeing pros and cons
Aaron Young, an incoming senior at St. Paul Johnson, appreciates that students can use cards to travel anywhere, but he sees both pros and cons with the pilot program.
“If school starts earlier at 7:30 a.m., I think people would want to get to bed earlier, by around 11,” he said, “when an 8:30 a.m. start would make them feel like they could stay awake later.”
Sebastian Alfonzo, a junior at Central High School, is hopeful Metro Transit will be useful for students. Earlier this year, Alfonzo was one of three youth leaders in the St. Paul Youth Commission who coordinated a separate pilot program to evaluate the use of Metro Transit in getting students to and from school.
“I can see it being a challenge to make [public transit] work,” Alfonzo said. “But if they can succeed at Johnson, then it’s possible to have the entire district using Metro Transit.”
In this pilot, Alfonzo’s group was given a $10,000 grant, which it used to buy bus cards for 11 Harding students and three Central students, to advertise the project at the two schools and to work with Metro Transit staff.
“We found out that these cards were very helpful for students, especially lower-income students,” Alfonzo said. “It gave them more freedom to be independent in how they got around.”
The only problem was that students would lose their cards, Alfonzo said. At Johnson this year, lost cards will cost $10 to replace.
Riding the city bus also could allow Johnson students with jobs and after-school activities more freedom to get around the metropolitan area, according to Statum Allen. On top of that, according to Thompson, it allows students to stay after school more and stay on top of academics.
However, parents of 82 Johnson students so far have opted-out of the Metro Transit cards with concerns primarily regarding safety, according to Thompson.
“Some parents aren’t really supportive of the public busing because they don’t want school transportation with strangers on it,” Young said. “However, my parents both don’t have a big problem with it.”
‘I believe it will work…’
The district coordinated an in-depth analysis with Metro Transit before deciding which school would use the pilot program. Buses for all district high school students and specifics such as addresses, routes, timing, transfers and walking time were included in the evaluation by school officials.
“We’re a good choice for the pilot because we have two major bus lines near our school on Arcade and Maryland,” Thompson said.
Through this process, the district and administrators at Johnson have been paying close attention to Minneapolis and how it began using later start times and public transit. Thompson met with administrators at Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis, which is demographically similar to St. Paul Johnson, to figure out how the program succeeded there.
“We have results from Minneapolis saying that they started with the pilot, and now all of their high schools use it,” Statum Allen said. “It worked really well for them, and I believe it will work just as well for our students.”