New Partnership To Get Students to School – No Matter What

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Via riders arrive at Cento Plaza. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The VIA Metropolitan Transit Prímo 103 Zarzamora line will be free to ride on Valentine's Day.

The best education in the world is not worth much if a student isn’t there to participate. Even the highest performing schools are only as effective as their attendance rates.

A new partnership between VIA Metropolitan Transit and Communities in Schools San Antonio (CIS) aims to eliminate the variable of transportation so that students and their families can focus on health at home and achievement in school, without having to worry about the space between.

For students like Selena Diaz, school represents security. She has a trusting relationship with her CIS Site Coordinator Jennifer Harkins, and together they are exploring Diaz’s college prospects and confronting her anxiety about the future.

Jennifer Harkins and Selena Diaz at Holmes High School. Bekah McNeel / Rivard Report

Bekah McNeel / Rivard Report

Jennifer Harkins and Selena Diaz at Holmes High School.

Right now, Diaz’s family is homeless and scattered. Her mother is in El Paso, her brothers are staying with friends or in hotels, and her little sister lives in Converse. Diaz currently lives with a friend from church. In order to get from place to place, Diaz has been relying on rides from friends. Riding the bus requires money, and the price of a bus pass was often more than she could spare. The risk of being stranded somewhere without a way to get from point A to point B hung over her head. 

“It leaves you with so much worry,” Diaz said.

Harkins realized that transportation was one of the root barriers to Diaz’s education. Through VIA’s “Connections” program, that barrier disappeared.

The program provides semester bus passes – usually priced at $38 – free of charge to students identified by CIS site coordinators. VIA chose CIS as a partner because of its function as case managers.

“It’s not our job to go manage the entire student body,” VIA board member Tex Morgan said. “(CIS is) very comfortable in that space.”

This means that rather than handing out bus passes to any and all students on free and reduced lunches, or with a certain number of absences, the case managers talk to students and figure out if transportation really is the primary reason they aren’t getting to school. Would they actually use a bus pass if it was given to them?

For students like Diaz, that is the case.

“It’s our hope that we can eliminate transportation as a reason students are not in the classroom,” Morgan said.

When it comes to partnerships Morgan said the VIA board looks for “masters of their domain.” In case management, that is CIS.

CIS site coordinators look into the variables of students’ home and school lives to determine the source of their obstacles, and then bring in community-based solutions. They partner with businesses and nonprofits to combat hunger, homelessness, and the many other situational difficulties pulling students away from classroom engagement.

For Diaz, her relationship with Harkins has provided emotional stability as well.

“It’s comforting to know that CIS is happening at school,” Diaz said. “They have people’s backs.”

CIS’s presence across various schools and districts makes the organization a good fit for the VIA program.

Mobility, or moving between school districts, is another reason many students struggle. The disruption is complicated when their transportation plans, often tenuous to begin with, no longer work in their new situation. A VIA bus pass eliminates that variable.

“The beauty of this program is that it will touch various sectors of the city,” VIA Vice President of Customer Relations and Sales Priscilla Ingle said. “They’ll still have the connectivity to get where they need to go.”

VIA has prioritized its services for students. In one case, it moved a bus stop in Judson ISD to better serve Judson High School. It further provides transportation for City Year corps members in honor of the work they do for schools.

“This is an ideological movement,” Morgan said.

The semester passes are good for any regular service route in the VIA system, and the “semesters” overlap to cover the summer. Students can use them to get to work, to the grocery store, or wherever they need to go. This also eliminates transportation-based absenteeism, because the constant service doesn’t force students to pick between a ride to school or a ride to work, for example.

“The advantage of VIA is that I can rely on it every day,” Diaz said.

Diaz likes to see all the different kinds of people riding the VIA busses. It comforts her that the buses will be there when she needs them. Even if something pops up last minute, VIA is always running.

The initial pilot program has distributed 338 complimentary passes through CIS across the city. As CIS collects data to ensure the program is achieving its intended effect, it can begin to further expand the program. CIS’s presence in 11 school districts and its ability to collect and monitor data was another asset that made it the ideal partner for the program.

“We have a multitude of school districts,” Morgan said. “We want it to succeed across Bexar County.”

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