New partnership expands city bus options for Wichita students

New bus partnership for Wichita schools

Wichita school officials say they hope middle school and high school students will buy discounted bus passes through a new partnership between the district and Wichita Transit.
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Wichita school officials say they hope middle school and high school students will buy discounted bus passes through a new partnership between the district and Wichita Transit.

Starting this fall, it will be cheaper and easier for Wichita middle school and high school students to ride a city bus to school.

Thanks to a new partnership between Wichita Transit and the school district, students can buy discounted city bus passes for traveling to school and elsewhere. In addition, students at seven Wichita schools who don’t qualify for yellow-bus service will be able to catch city buses twice a day at new stops closer to their schools.

“I really, really believe that this one’s going to be a game-changer for us,” said Justin Kasel, principal of Hamilton Middle School, just south of downtown Wichita.

“Getting to school shouldn’t be as big of a problem for our families as it has in the past.”

At Hamilton, more than 400 students live within 2.5 miles of school – too close to qualify for school bus service, Kasel said. Some get rides to school from parents or others, but most just walk, he said.

Last year, about 20 percent of Hamilton students were identified as “chronically absent,” meaning they missed 10 percent or more of school time. Many families cite transportation issues as a reason their children miss school, Kasel said.

“We have tried and tried and tried to improve that number, and it’s just been one of the most difficult data points to move,” he said.

Under the new program, families of Wichita students in middle school or high school will be able to buy city bus passes for $20 a month. The regular price is $55 a month.

The discounted passes, available to any student who shows their Wichita student ID when making the purchase, allow students unlimited access to Wichita Transit services.

Also new this year, for students who attend seven schools, Wichita Transit will re-route certain routes twice a day to drop off students at school in the morning and pick them up following dismissal. Schools participating in the pilot program are Coleman, Curtis, Hamilton and Robinson Middle Schools and East, North and West High Schools.

Wichita City Council member James Clendenin said the partnership makes sense for the district and the city, which wants to “make our bus system more relevant to more people.”

“If you go to a lot of cities our size or larger, students are riding public transportation to school all the time, so this really isn’t something that’s uncommon,” Clendenin said during a news conference at Hamilton Middle School. “We’re really just investing in our students.”

Tulsa public schools announced recently that high school students could ride Tulsa Transit buses for free seven days a week with a valid student ID. Portland, Ore., also offers free transit passes to students enrolled at certain high schools.

Kasel, the Hamilton principal, said the $20 monthly fee could be a burden for some Wichita families, but he thinks it’s a reasonable cost.

“If they only ride it to and from school, it’s about 50 cents a ride, and that’s a pretty good deal,” he said. “It’s much cheaper than buying a car and filling it with gas and making repairs and (buying) insurance and all that stuff.”

Last year, the Wichita school district eliminated bus rides for thousands of students as part of a slate of budget cuts.

The district spends a significant chunk of its $662 million budget on transportation and fuel. About 17,000 students ride buses to and from school, at a total cost of about $200,000 a day.

This summer in Wichita, a new “SayYES” summer youth program is offering free bus rides, free access to public swimming pools, free lunches, free golf and more for youths ages 7-17. The pilot program, which runs through Aug. 31, was developed in part to introduce young people to the city transit system, officials said.

Student bus passes may be purchased at participating schools or at the Wichita Transit administrative office at 777 E. Waterman beginning Aug. 21, district officials said. All secondary students with a valid school ID are eligible for the student pricing. Parents must sign a consent form for each student pass.

School-specific maps detailing bus routes and deviations to accommodate pilot-program schools, and free travel training will be available at open house events at the schools.

For more information, call Wichita Transit at 316-265-7221.

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias