YouthPass expands to East Portland high schools

David Douglas, Parkrose students to get free passes after years of them only going to Portland Public Schools’ students

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JONATHAN HOUSE - David Douglas students Divine Muange, left, and Say Wah Paw are excited about TriMet extending the free student YouthPass east to their neighborhoods.

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JONATHAN HOUSE – David Douglas students Divine Muange, left, and Say Wah Paw are excited about TriMet extending the free student YouthPass east to their neighborhoods.

Divine Muange, 17, plays power forward and center on the David Douglas High School girls’ varsity basketball team. To get home after practice, which ends as late as 7 p.m. in winter, she has to bum a ride from her parents or shell out $1.25 for a TriMet ticket.Say Wah Paw, 16, expects to take two Advanced Placement classes next year, when she’ll be a junior at David Douglas High. There’s extra academic help available to her after school if she needs it, but then she has to cram into one of the two yellow school buses that ferry high school students home at 4:30 p.m.

“There have been many times where it takes me an hour just to get home, because it gets so packed on the school bus,” Say Wah says. “It’s really stressful.”

All of that will change this summer, when the city of Portland redistributes its spending on what’s known as YouthPass, the free TriMet passes that have been available to all 11,000 high school students in the Portland Public Schools district since the 2008-09 school year.

For the first time, when Portland-area schools start in August, free bus fare will be available to high school students outside of PPS, too, in the David Douglas and Parkrose school districts of East Portland.

That’s a huge win for equity, says Jennifer Phung, a community organizer with OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, a nonprofit that helped teenagers in David Douglas and Parkrose successfully advocate for including east county students in the program. It’s also validation for students, including Divine and Say Wah, who pressed city leaders to make the switch.

“They have worked really tirelessly,” Phung says. “It really gives hope to young people about what they can do.”

Future allocations in doubt

But the victory may be short-lived. Portland officials, including Commissioner Amanda Fritz and Mayor Ted Wheeler, have said they don’t think the city should spend its scarce revenue on services outside of its core duties. They’ve pledged to commit about $1 million toward the cost of providing YouthPass to Portland high school students in the 2017-18 school year. But after that, the city’s funding for YouthPass may finally go away after years of similar budget threats.

“There are too many things we’re not funding that are city-specific services,” says Tim Crail, chief of staff to Fritz.

This month, city officials are expected to meet with school district leaders and youth advocates who’ve pushed for years for a more equitable distribution of the city’s money, to figure out how Portland will share its contribution among the three districts.

From there, it will be up to TriMet officials and the superintendents and school boards in the Portland, Parkrose and David Douglas districts to figure out who among their students will get the passes.

In the past, PPS and TriMet have matched the city’s annual contribution with their own funds. PPS doesn’t provide yellow buses for its high school students.

But that formula has meant that all high school students in PPS have gotten to ride TriMet for free with their PPS student IDs — a perk now worth $28 a month —regardless of whether their families needed the financial support.

Greater need in East Portland

Advocates for expanding YouthPass to East Portland have argued the need is greater there.

In Portland Public Schools, 46 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. By comparison, 72 percent of David Douglas students and 63 percent of Parkrose students do.

“There has been a need expressed for a long time,” says Ana del Rocio Valderrama, who won election to the David Douglas School Board in May. “I believe transportation is a right, like education.”

Portland Public Schools still expects to give all of its high school students passes in 2017-18, despite the funding changes from the city, says spokesman Dave Northfield.

Crail, chief of staff to Commissioner Fritz, says the city’s not asking David Douglas or Parkrose to pony up for the program. David Douglas and Parkrose each offer high school students yellow bus service.

And that’s not likely to go away. School districts will still need to provide it.

Parkrose Superintendent Karen Fischer Gray estimates Parkrose High School will get about 180 passes to distribute among its 915 students.

David Douglas, which has about 3,000 high school students, isn’t sure yet how many passes it will receive, or the conditions for issuing those passes, says district spokesman Dan McCue.

Last year, OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon collaborated with the Youth Environmental Justice Alliance to survey David Douglas and Parkrose high school students about YouthPass. Not surprisingly, they found huge interest among students.

The survey also found that 40 percent of students reported having missed class after missing the yellow bus.

“A lot of my friends, they are like, ‘I missed the yellow school bus so there’s no way for me to come to school,’ ” says Divine. “And they don’t come to school at all.”

Tribune reporter Beth Slovic contributed to this report.

This story was first published here. 

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