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Baltimore kids need a more reliable way to get to school | COMMENTARY

An MTA bus is shown on Baltimore Street outside University of Maryland Medical Center. Baltimore City is the only public school system in the state that relies on mass transit to shuttle students (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
An MTA bus is shown on Baltimore Street outside University of Maryland Medical Center. Baltimore City is the only public school system in the state that relies on mass transit to shuttle students (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

One Baltimore City Public School student estimates being late to class at least three times a week because of unreliable bus service, and another said he was late 23 days in a quarter — or about half the time. Female students say they are sexually harassed by men who make unwanted advances toward them on their commute to school using public transportation. “You can’t look pretty on the bus … you can’t have your hair done. You can’t even put your makeup on …. They try to talk to you or sit next to you and get in your face, and I just don’t like that,” declared one student from Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School. Other students say they try to be as inconspicuous as possible to protect themselves, but sometimes become easy targets, like the two students who were robbed of their cellphones at gunpoint while sitting at the bus stop.

These are some of the stories Baltimore City public middle- and high-schoolers told the nonprofit Fund for Educational Excellence of their experiences taking public buses, subways and light rail to school, the only jurisdiction in the state that relies on mass transit to shuttle students. Such a setup was created for a system of school choice that allows students to attend better schools located outside of their neighborhoods, but it comes with unintended consequences.

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Students are sending a clear message in the nonprofit’s report that Baltimore City Public Schools and the Maryland Transit Administration need to do a better job of ensuring the safety of students and making sure the commute isn’t hurting them academically. The students say for the most part they feel safe, but the school system and state are responsible for every child, and right now they are failing some.

The students had ideas of their own to improve the experience that we could get behind. For one: Run buses more frequently. Students complained that buses pass them by because they are full, making their commute time longer. Second, improve the accuracy of the TransitApp, a smartphone app that MTA riders use to see when the next bus or train is coming. Knowing when a bus is coming can help shorten the time students are waiting outside, where they sometimes see fights or people taking or selling drugs. Third, add more shelters and better lighting to bus stops. (MTA said they have committed to 200 additional in the region but not all in the city); students said they are most weary about taking public transit when it’s dark, making them miss out on extracurricular activities that they can add to college applications and would also enrich their lives.

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The school system also has ideas for improvement, and we think they are good ones as well. Officials there suggest the MTA establish routes that allow students to travel from home to school with fewer transfers and that the administration produce daily, weekly and/or monthly on-time performance reports on school tripper buses (additional buses added during peak school hours) so they can see where service lacks.

Other solutions to consider are increasing MTA presence during peak student ride times and creating an alert system for students who are approached by adults asking them to get in their cars or who harass them. Those who run the Fund for Educational Excellence still think using mass transit is the best option for Baltimore students. Creating a separate school bus system that covers “every possible combination of door-to-door student travel” would be too costly and difficult, the group says. But we think it is something that the school system should study. If not a full system, perhaps a partial one with hubs in different quadrants of the city that go to specific schools? Or what about a system for after school activities? In a city like Baltimore with a host of challenges, it pays to be innovative and think outside the box.

Both the school system and transit administration said they are willing to continue working together to come up with solutions; we hope they come up with substantive changes. The school system said it is common practice to let students make up work when unreliable transportation makes them late, just as they would for a doctor or dental appointment. But the report found that in some cases tardiness resulted in the loss of a letter grade or delayed start times for an entire class. That is unacceptable and should never have happened in the first place. We must do all we can to make sure it never happens again.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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