State lawmakers, mayors, police officers and school officials all seem to agree that it's vital for students to attend school regularly -- and to stay in the system until they graduate. They know that poor attendance can lead to high dropout rates and crime, issues all too common in cities with pockets of deep poverty such as Oakland, Hayward and Richmond.
But students and school officials say that a new policy by AC Transit works against those goals by making it more complicated -- and in some cases, much more expensive -- to get to school.
Thousands of students, from Richmond to Fremont, rely on AC Transit buses to get to class. Instead of paying the $2 round-trip cash fare each school day -- roughly $40 a month -- most have relied on a monthly discount pass that costs $15 for youths 18 and under. AC Transit used to sell about 20,000 youth passes every month.
But in August, AC Transit discontinued those paper passes. The agency still offers a youth discount, but only through the new Clipper card, a photo ID onto which students load their bus fare. Students must apply for the Clipper card in person, bring proof of their birth dates, have their photo taken, and wait for weeks for the card to arrive in the mail.
Clarence Johnson, an agency spokesman, said the transition was made to reduce fraud (adults purchasing the youth passes), speed up boarding time and allow kids to travel without carrying cash. But the change has not gone as smoothly as hoped. The switch from paper to plastic has caused processing backlogs for the agency and confusion and delays for families. It's also created a burden for schools, which have been left to help frustrated students and families -- many of them, with limited English skills -- navigate the new process.
"There are children in this city who now are paying more to go to school simply because they need a card that they applied for a month ago and they still don't have it in their hands," said Marin Trujillo, a spokesman for the West Contra Costa school district. "The bottom line is it's a mess. It's disrespectful to the community, and it's not right."
The agency held more than 50 outreach events before the start of school to make the transition easier, Johnson said, and the change was announced about six months in advance. "We thought we provided plenty of lead time," he said. "Certainly if this effort proved not to be successful, we would try to do more."
Since the school year began, Johnson said, AC Transit has been overwhelmed with applications, which are taking longer than once estimated to process. Some students said they waited more than a month for the cards to come. In the meantime, if they didn't purchase a temporary, 30-day pass (only available at the time of a student's Clipper card application) they are stuck paying the full cash fare.
Carmelita Reyes, principal of Oakland International High School in North Oakland, anticipated many of the problems. She paid her secretary to come in for two days over the summer to help her translate letters into 10 languages, explaining the process to the school's recently arrived immigrant and refugee students so they would attend one of the registration events.
About 90 percent of her students applied for the cards in August, she said. But by the fourth week of school, she estimated that half of them were still waiting for them to arrive.
"We're entirely powerless in this situation," Reyes said. "There has to be a paper pass that kids can buy when they lose their card and when they are waiting for a card."
Bebe San, 18, a refugee from Thailand who attends Oakland International High School, purchased a $15 temporary pass when she applied for a Clipper card in August. But when she tried to use it, she said, the bus driver took it from her, apparently mistaking it for the now-defunct pass. They aren't for sale elsewhere, and she said she doesn't have the money to buy another one anyway -- or to pay the cash fare. So until her Clipper card arrives, she said last week, she would ride her bike to school from East Oakland's Laurel District, about 6 miles in each direction.
"It's really hard for students like us," San said. "They should organize this better."
School administrators are also concerned about the hundreds of students in Oakland alone who turn 19 during their senior year, or for special needs students who might remain in the school system until they are 22. High school students who are 19 don't qualify for the discount -- and, because proof of birth is required in the application process, they can no longer pass as a youth.
"What I want to see in writing is that any student who's in the K-12 system is eligible for the youth pass, period," said Adrian Kirk, who directs the Oakland school district's Family and Community Service Office. "Just because a student ages out of the system, we are not going to be jettisoning that student."
Johnson said AC Transit already raised the youth limit from 18 to 19 this spring after hearing from social service agencies and school districts. "This is a youth fare. It's not a student fare," he said.
School districts must provide free transportation for certain groups of students, including those who are homeless, those who transfer to far-flung schools for safety reasons, and those who are on juvenile probation. For now, AC Transit is allowing districts to buy temporary paper passes to issue to students who are entitled to free rides to school. But Johnson said the agency would like to limit the number of those passes.
One alternative being discussed is for school districts to load the funds onto the students' Clipper cards through an online software program. Kirk said districts might be charged a $1 processing fee for each of those transactions, however -- in addition to the bus fare and the cost of staff to manage the database.
"They have done something that is good for them, but they have created a monstrous complication for us," Kirk said.
Greg Cluster, a teacher at Oakland's MetWest High School, said he realized early on that the change could be disastrous for the school's twice-weekly internship program. Cluster arranged for students to apply for the Clipper card at MetWest's back-to-school registration. He also asked AC Transit to mail the passes to the school instead of students' homes, since he knew that some of the teenagers move frequently or don't have permanent addresses. Cluster said school staff verified the information students entered and took their photos. He then delivered a CD of the students' photos to AC Transit.
Cluster thinks the agency should create a public website on which students can upload their photos and apply for the cards -- and that it should send representatives to every school, as it did for MetWest, Berkeley High and McClymonds High School in West Oakland.
Johnson said AC Transit was open to suggestions.
"The intent here was certainly not to make things more difficult," he said. "Certainly, with every change there comes some adjustment period. If this system, for whatever reason proves to be unworkable, we certainly would opt to change it."