Four years ago, Beatrice Kanwea escaped the bloodshed and turmoil of her native Liberia. Nearly penniless, she and her family settled into a tiny apartment in East Oakland, joining thousands of recently arrived immigrant families who come to Oakland from every corner of the Earth. So it was a godsend for the seventeen-year-old and her two sisters when the school district started a small high school catering to teenage immigrants with basic English skills and, often, little formal educational background. But now the girls face a challenge that bedevils all too many students at this and other Oakland campuses — they can't afford to get to school.
Located in Oakland's Temescal district, at the former site of Carter Middle School, Oakland International School opened its doors in fall of 2007, ushering in students from across the city, and allowing youths like Beatrice to avoid their large and often rough neighborhood schools. Last year, 17 percent of the school's students were refugees, and almost every student had come to America less than four years ago. "They come with nothing," says Oakland International School Principal Carmelita Reyes.
But while the school is running smoothly and its attendance has grown steadily, the seemingly straightforward issue of transporting kids to its campus has become increasingly problematic. At first, students were given free bus passes through a separate immigrant services department at OUSD. But funding for that dried up, and students had to start paying this fall. Now Beatrice and her sisters struggle to pay for the bus they take to their school across the city. "We don't have the money to be paying for the bus everyday," says Beatrice, who is in her second year at the school.
Almost within earshot of the diesel engines of Berkeley's free yellow bus fleet, Oakland does not offer school transport to the vast majority of its students. While a subsidized monthly student AC Transit pass is only $15, International School attendees are some of the district's poorest students, from families making as little as $130 week, according to school records. Most students don't live near school or have access to cars. For some, putting up the bus fare every month is a real struggle. A handful of kids have left the school or decided not to enroll at all because they are simply unable to pay the bus fare, Reyes said. Then they either go to their large neighborhood school or, in some cases, don't go to school at all.
Reyes describes being bombarded by requests for free passes from students, 80 percent of whom ride the bus. "I've had parents call me who want to send kids here but, without a pass, can't afford it," she adds.
Under federal law, students who are legally homeless receive a free pass. So to ensure their free ride to school this year, Reyes reported some of her students as legally homeless because many live in apartments with multiple other families. But proving this, and getting kids to admit it, is a challenge.
With reported district-wide dropout rates just shy of 40 percent, Oakland's schools have long sought ways of getting and retaining kids in class. Although giving them a free ticket to school wouldn't alleviate the problem, Reyes believes it would definitely be a positive incentive. But paying for the passes would be far too much of a drain on the school's modest budget, Reyes said.
Although most of the district's 46,000 students attend neighborhood schools, a growing number attend one of the small citywide schools offering specialized curriculum for students who might otherwise fall through the cracks. The district even hosts annual options fairs for kids entering high school, offering them a chance to choose schools outside their neighborhoods that might offer a better academic fit. This piggybacks on the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which guarantees students the right to attend other schools if their local school is not meeting performance standards. In Oakland, where underperformance is the norm, thousands have this choice.
"The district has created options encouraging kids to look outside of their neighborhood," says Reyes, who noted how much money schools lose when enrollment drops. "But then they're not providing transportation to get them there. So is it really an option?"
It wasn't always like this. In August 2002, a year after Reyes started teaching in Oakland, low-income students in middle and high schools across the AC Transit service district were given free bus passes, the result of a campaign waged by a coalition of advocacy groups and public officials. But a financial shortfall in AC Transit's budget that year, coupled with a slew of bureaucratic entanglements, forced the program's early demise. By the fall of 2003, the free passes were history.
"AC Transit was trying their best," said Jeff Hobson, deputy director of the Transportation and Land Use Coalition, an Oakland nonprofit that was involved in the 2002 free bus pass campaign. "There's no real bad guy here. But pretty quickly it became clear that the commitment was only going to pay for a portion of what advocates were asking for and that there were a lot of administrative difficulties in making it happen."
Currently, OUSD only offers yellow bus service to its small contingent of students who attend all-day special education programs. Aside from that, it has a slim annual transportation budget of $50,000 from which it very selectively draws, providing free AC Transit bus passes to students who are forced to attend schools outside their neighborhoods either because their local schools are at maximum capacity, or they were kicked out of them.
"If students want to go to school outside of their neighborhood, mostly it's on them," explains Mike Bonino, an OUSD employee who oversees the distribution of passes. He says it's also a good learning experience for kids to raise the requisite $15. "If I gave every student a pass, we'd just blow our budget."
Oakland is hardly alone. The majority of East Bay municipalities served by AC Transit do not provide free bus service to their students, many of whom are low-income. The only exceptions are a few wealthier cities including Berkeley, which provides busing through fifth grade, a direct result of the city's higher property taxes.
Hobson dates the drastic reduction in yellow school bus service back to Proposition 13, California's 1978 landmark property tax reduction initiative. Ever since, he says, schools throughout the state have had a lot more trouble providing services like free transportation. "Low-income communities don't have as much ability to tax residents to pay for services like this, and the school has to choose between paying teachers, buying books, and running a transportation system," he said.
Recently, the issue got even more complicated, when the Federal Transportation Administration threatened to clamp down on public bus routes designed primarily to transport students to school. Federal dollars, it argues, can't be used to subsidize school bus routes because it harms private bus companies' ability to compete. Oakland has many such routes, including the one bringing students from the flatlands up to Skyline High School in the hills.
When accepting the principal job at Oakland International School, Reyes knew there'd be no shortage of challenges, but has a difficult time accepting this one. "I can't believe in the USA we can't figure out a way to support students' education by getting them to school."