High school students in Memphis are one step closer to receiving free city bus passes.

Shelby County Schools board members unanimously voted to commission a district study to see what it would cost to purchase bus passes from the Memphis Area Transit Authority for all high school students.

The idea is the brainchild of student advocates, together with leadership training organization BRIDGES. It is seen as a way to reduce suspensions and expulsions. Students have said reliable transportation to and from school, and to jobs and after-school programs would reduce stress and help curb behavior problems.

“I see this resolution as a workforce solution, as an after-school solution, as an economic development solution,” said Kevin Woods, the school board member who submitted the proposal. “You’re talking about 15,000 students who would have access to transportation year round… It’s the right thing to do.”

Patrick Johnson, a senior at G.W. Carver College and Career Academy, speaks to school board members about bus passes for high school students.
PHOTO CREDIT: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

At the meeting Patrick Johnson, a senior at G.W. Carver College and Career Academy and one of the student leaders behind the idea, thanked the board for considering the plan. He said also said that he hopes the city will reroute buses, so that they bring students closer to their campuses. That way “kids aren’t waiting in the midst of drug deals.”

The board resolution made the case that the free bus passes would also help reduce absences in a school district where most students live in poverty and are less likely to have access to a car or enough money for public transit. The state holds districts accountable for how often students miss school, so districts have been piloting programs to boost attendance.

Memphis students are guaranteed district transportation if they attend their neighborhood school and live more than two miles away from that school. Parents are responsible for taking their child to school if they attend any other district or charter school. Some charter schools provide transportation, but they are not required to do so.

Shelby County Schools already buys bus passes from the local transit authority, known as MATA, for students who have been expelled and are attending alternative schools. Last semester, the district purchased 269 student passes, a transit authority spokeswoman said.

The district bought 562 during the previous school year, and 466 the year before that.

The transit authority said it is looking forward to working with Shelby County Schools on the study.

At the meeting Tuesday, Justin Davis, the organizing coordinator for the Memphis Bus Riders Union, said his group supports the effort, but also recognizes city bus service is “inadequate” to meet the demand.

“We are going to continue to fight for expanded service and bus routes that get people actually to where they need to go,” Davis told board members.

It is not yet clear how long the feasibility study will take, a district spokeswoman said.

Metro Nashville Public Schools has a similar program for its high school students. Student identification cards allow them to ride the bus for free. That district, Tennessee’s second-largest, covers the cost of the bus passes.