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Op-ed

To close the opportunity gap in Baltimore schools, we must invest in transit | GUEST COMMENTARY

Imagine this: waking up at 5:30 a.m. to go to school and walking along dark streets to a poorly lit bus stop that doesn’t provide any protection from sleet, snow, or cold. Your bus approaches; it’s late, and it’s full, and it passes you by without stopping — again. Eventually, another bus arrives, and you get on and begin a nearly 2-hour commute to school. It’s crowded, and there is nowhere to sit. There’s not enough space, you’re worried about catching COVID, and you’re uncomfortable. Finally, you arrive at school. You’re late, and you’ve missed part of your first period class. You start to see this period’s grades fall below the rest of your grades.

This scenario is a frequent reality for far too many Baltimore City Public School System students, and it has been for over 30 years. Now more than ever, a lack of reliable, frequent, affordable and safe public transit interferes with students’ ability to access their education equitably. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these issues and made clear that Maryland Transit Administration’s (MTA) service does not account for the needs of city schools students, more than 29,000 of whom rely on MTA buses, light rail or and subway to get to and from school. That’s an estimated 18% of MTA’s annual ridership. It’s also clear that the impact extends beyond the commute; it affects mental health, motivation and learning.

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I am a teacher for the school district, and on my first day teaching, I had 35 ninth-grade students on my roster for the first period. However, when the bell rang, only three students were present in my classroom. Most were late due to transit issues. Students’ negative experiences with transit result in lost learning time and the inability to get to and participate in meaningful experiences, such as internships, part-time jobs, and inter-school clubs and activities. We must invest in transit if we want to close the opportunity gap for students.

Last month, I joined Baltimore City Public Schools students, families and teachers at a Baltimore City Council Education, Workforce and Youth Committee hearing on transportation and its impact on students. Other teachers and I were able to share our experiences with transit and how it impacts our students’ education. Unreliable transit often results in my students arriving home so late in the evening that they don’t have adequate time to complete their schoolwork for the next day. Additionally, we heard stories from many students who don’t feel safe on the bus after dark, so they don’t participate in after-school activities.

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These comments are consistent with the findings from the recent report from the Fund for Educational Excellence. The report, Not in Service, looks at how the current public transit system fails to meet the needs of students and offers ways in which the MTA could improve their experience. Students need buses that run more frequently along routes that reach their neighborhoods and their schools. They should have free bus passes valid at any time so they can get to jobs and internships and fully participate in extracurricular activities. They should have well-lit, sheltered bus stops to feel safe and comfortable during their commute.

Maryland needs to increase the frequency of bus service quickly, so students can reliably and safely get to school on time. The MTA must commit to hire and retain more operators and mechanics to run more frequent service on routes heavily used by students. The Baltimore City Council and mayor’s office need to work with the MTA to improve safety for students traveling to and from school, and with city schools to provide free, unlimited transit access for students.

It will take active partnership and real investment to change student experiences. With additional, intentional funding and continued collaboration, state and local governments and agencies can ensure that investments in transportation improvements recognize the needs of students. It’s not enough to let students share their stories in a hearing or a report; we must respond with the funding that will provide more buses and a safe, accessible experience.

Matthew Rodriguez (baltedequity@gmail.com) is a Baltimore City Public Schools teacher and sits on the leadership team for Baltimoreans for Educational Equity. Ruth Farfel, a program associate with the Fund for Educational Excellence and co-author of its report, Not In Service: Why Public Transit Must Aim to Serve Students, contributed to this op-ed.


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