Friday, December 13, 2013

Jump On the Bus

Last spring, Councilmember Muriel Bowser, along with colleagues Anita Bonds and Mary Cheh, proposed legislation to provide all District students with access to free transportation. The DC Kids Ride Free Program was implemented this school year with wide-spread popularity. While the program is proving successful with youth currently in traditional public and charter schools, there is a large subset of youth trying to reconnect through alternative education programs (STAY) and workforce development options (SYEP) who are lacking access to such a valuable resource.

The demand is clear. Earlier this year, DCAYA executed an in-depth study of disconnected and recently reconnected youth in the District. Using a dual methodology that combined surveys (we interviewed nearly 500 youth aged 16-24) and focus groups, we captured significant insight into the realities of disconnection here in the District. What we found is heartening: the vast majority of students, who have disconnected, actively want to reconnect. These young people reach a level of maturity and understanding that success in the workforce is predicated on a high school diploma, post secondary education, and guided job training; yet they also face tremendous barriers. One of which is transportation.

Over 33% of our respondents reported spending over $30 a week, or $120 a month, on transportation. Based on reported income data, this suggests youth are spending between 15-30% of their monthly income on transportation alone.

Many young people seeking to reconnect are over-age and under-credited to the point that enrollment in a traditional alternative program would not provide them with enough time to earn a diploma, and once out of school, internship options are nearly non-existent. Others face very real pressure to work in addition to pursuing an education, thus needing a more flexible educational program. These youth are often more appropriately served in alternative credentialing programs (STAY Programs) or intensive GED programs. However, due to the designation of their educational program and their age, the majority are unable to access the transportation supports afforded to younger students.

The loss of economic productivity and social costs associated with disconnected youth are profound. The roughly 12,000 currently disconnected students here in DC cost taxpayers (in lost earnings) roughly $13,900 per youth, or a total of $167,000,000. When you add in the per-student annual social cost of $37,450 associated with disconnection that’s an additional $449,000,000 a year (subsidized health care, income assistance, higher rates of criminal justice involvement) . A modest investment in transportation subsidies would remove a major barrier to successful reconnection and reap significant economic and social rewards for years to come.

With this in mind, I urged Councilmember Bowser and Councilmember Cheh at the Joint Roundtable on the DC Kids Ride Free Program to expand the program to:
  • Serve youth up to age 24 who have reconnected to alternative credentialing programs.
  • Extend operational hours until 10pm, accommodating those students who are taking evening classes.
  • Include summer months for students attending year round or are enrolled in summer school programs.
  • Incorporate SYEP youth, continuing the city’s efforts to grow a local, proficient youth workforce.
My suggestions were well-received and I look forward to working with Councilmembers Bowser and Cheh to make them a reality.

Many of our city’s young people face a barrage of obstacles on their path to adulthood that require intensive services and interventions. When it comes to the obstacle of transportation, however, the DC Kids Ride Free Program has proven an effective method for breaking down a known barrier. By expanding the program to youth participating in alternative education, GED programs, and SYEP, youth are more likely to stick with and complete programs intended to better their lives and ultimately, the community as a whole. It’s time to jump on the metrobus and support those youth who one day, will be able to support themselves.

Maggie Riden is the Executive Director of DC Alliance of Youth Advocates. She encourages youth and community advocates to attend Roundtables and Committee Hearings to provide the council with honest insight on neighborhood issues. You can stay up-to-date on these hearings by checking out the DCAYA calendar of events

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