BALTIMORE -- Students at Wide Angle Youth Media, which runs after-school programs, could have chosen any issue as the subject of their project a couple of years back. But the teenagers decided they wanted to spend the year working on media campaign to improve school attendance by improving bus service.
The bus figures large in the lives of Baltimore youth. It’s how they get to school. It’s how they travel to see each other. It’s how they get to movie theaters, the mall and after-school jobs.
“Without the bus, you don’t have a ride and you get stuck,” said Dominic Solomon, 15, a 10th-grader who takes two buses to school.
Baltimore’s school system spends about $5.7 million on bus passes for high school students each year. These passes, called S-Passes, are only valid on weekdays from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.
But the students at Wide Angle, a nonprofit organization that teaches media education in after-school programs, believe the bus pass system, meant to make it easier for students to get to school, actually makes it harder to get there when buses run late or skip stops.
Arianna Clatterbuck, a 17-year-old student in this year’s Attendance and Design Team program at Wide Angle, has only a 10- to 15-minute commute to school. But her wait at the bus stop can be much longer.
“Either (the bus) doesn’t come, or it’s late,” she said. If it is late, she’ll wait, but other students, she said, give up.
Unreliable buses aren’t the only concern.
Elijah Austin, 17, has been struck by other passengers twice on MTA buses.
“People are very violent on buses,” the 12th-grader said. “Some random guy just hit me and got off the bus. I’m just glad he didn’t take my things.”
Solomon thinks drivers tend not to see thefts or fights that occur onboard and would like to see more security on buses.
Other students say buses pass them by at bus stops, even if the bus has plenty of space. They figure it’s because they’re kids.
“Bus drivers have a lot of prejudice towards students,” said Hassan Abu-Hakim, 14. “If you go to a certain school, which has a certain reputation, the drivers prejudge the kids and are mean and hateful towards you.”
According to the Maryland State Department of Education, the state satisfactory level of school attendance is 94 percent. The high school attendance rate for Baltimore City in 2012 was 81 percent. The next lowest attendance, reported by Prince George’s County, was a full 10 percentage points higher, at 91 percent.
“More than 86 percent of Baltimore City Public Schools students who need public transportation to get to school have the transportation they need,” said Dr. Beshon Smith, from the Attendance and Truancy Office at the Baltimore City Public Schools, citing an “extensive study” done through a staff member at the MTA.
But the study also found that some routes don’t have enough buses, and commutes that involve more than one bus can go awry if one of the buses is late, Smith said.
“Most of the time, the buses come on time,” Solomon, the student, said. “But if it doesn’t… kids will get mad and they just go back home.”
Two years ago, the Wide Angle students created a campaign to encourage students to use the Rate Your Ride service run by the MTA in an effort to improve service.
Rate Your Ride allows riders to give real-time feedback directly to the MTA.
According to the Rate Your Ride website, the data collected is analyzed -- but only quarterly.
Michael Walk, MTA director of service development, said he was impressed with the Wide Angle Design Team’s work. He had hoped just to get “some sort of free promotion” when he began working with the students.
But the students did much more. They designed posters to be placed in every middle and high school and in bus shelters, said Becky Slogeris, the Design Team instructor. They made infographics showing the most rated routes, rider satisfaction and the percentage of the time that buses are late. They also produced a video commercial to encourage fellow students to rate their ride.
“I never expected infographics, a TV commercial, a student newsletter, all the things they helped craft,” Walk said. “They’ve been a very good partner with us.
And I’d like to see more, obviously.”
Students at the Baltimore Urban Debate League also believe buses are important.
The Debate League, founded to involve more city schools in debate competitions, started the A-GAME, or Attendance and Grades Amplify My Excellence, program to bring the youth perspective to a project focused on improving school attendance.
In the 2012-2013 academic year, 33 students from 11 schools participated as A-GAME ambassadors. In addition to acting as role models and mentors for their peers and encouraging them to attend school regularly, A-GAME ambassadors also planned quarterly trainings at their schools to help their peers overcome the barriers to attendance.
One of the issues the students cited: transportation. Solomon, a former A-GAME ambassador, said that conflicts on the bus are common.
“The altercations that go on, on the bus… make you feel unsafe,” he said.
“Sometimes, there are students before or after school who want to fight when they get on the bus. They feel like it’s a show.”
Both Debate League and Wide Angle students have served on the MTA’s Youth Advisory Council, but Slogeris is unsure if the council still meets.
Lyle Kendrick and Justine McDaniel contributed to this story.