During the last Shelby County Board of Education meeting in February, something remarkable happened.
Two teens led the charge to put bus passes in the hands of high school students with no access to transportation. Getting to school is a huge problem, and working a job after school is out of the question.
They were articulate in their expression and eloquent in their appeal for a positive vote from board members. The initiative received unanimous approval, and interim superintendent Joris Ray was directed to immediately launch a feasibility study to make the proposal an official Shelby County Schools policy.
George Washington Carver High School seniors John Chapman and Patrick Johnson helped to start a conversation about how the lack of transportation kept indigent students from taking advantage of job opportunities and even prevented many from attending school altogether.
It all started at a Bridge Builders Change meeting where young people were encouraged to discuss what types of extra services could be of help for students trying to help out at home while going to school.
“Patrick began to talk about the instability at home and all the family’s economic challenges,” said Mahal Burr, coordinator of Bridge Builders Change, a youth leadership and diversity training program.
“He was having serious issues getting to school. The school responded with charges of truancy. His mother was called in, and she was threatened with arrest. This made Patrick feel that he had to go out of his way to help out at home financially.”
To the charge of truancy were added other unlawful behaviors that led Johnson to juvenile detention.
“My name is Patrick Johnson, and I am a student at Carver High School,” he told the board in his advocacy for approval of bus passes. “I am asking you this evening to move the bus passes issue forward for students who would like to work and help out but have no transportation to do so.”
Chapman also appealed to the school board for a “yes” vote.
“I have appreciated the opportunity to visit the campus of Grambling University. This has helped me become aware of things I had no idea existed,” Chapman said. “It has been a good thing to expand student experiences and show us all the possibilities. Bus passes would help students take advantage of opportunities outside their community. But right now, for those who don’t have transportation, it doesn’t help for us to be aware of job opportunities if we have no way of getting there.”
District 4 representative Kevin Woods, a board member at Bridges, felt the proposal was something school board members should seriously consider.
“Many families in Shelby County have challenges with transportation,” said Woods. “We are looking at rezoning some schools so students won’t have to leave their communities to get to school. That will help alleviate some of the problem. But bus passes would help students who want to join the workforce but whose families don’t have transportation.
“This all started with Bridges advocacy and discussions concerning social issues and the kinds of challenges of some young people in school. Of course, board members approved the measure, and Superintendent Ray is exploring its feasibility.
“But it’s also notable that these young men started the conversation that led to this proposal, and the conversations are ongoing. We must seek to be responsive to the barriers that keep children from reaching their highest potential. These students were a part of this process. They got to see government in action and experienced firsthand what it’s like to have direct interaction with decision-makers. This was a win-win all around.”
Now comes the hard part: to make it all happen. According to Ray, partnership, common purpose and a joint venture with Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) can make this initiative reality.
“Right now, we are still gathering information on the feasibility of student bus passes. We seek a partnership, not only with MATA, but with parents as well. Households without transportation prevent parents from supporting their children in extracurricular and sports activities. Also, they are unable to attend parent-teacher conferences which may be necessary.
“Presently, we have a partnership with MATA which has been in place for 20 years or more which allows alternative students to ride the buses. We want to extend that benefit to all high school students,” said Ray.
“Also, we would like to see MATA re-route bus stops on some of our school campuses. That would increase ridership tremendously, for both students and their parents. When we eliminate the barriers in education, we also take away the excuses. We want to see our children excel without all the hindrances so many face right now.”
Members of the Memphis Bus Riders Union and Citizens For Better Service were on hand to support students speaking before the board. Some also addressed the board in favor of the proposal.