Up to 200 students could ride a city bus to Southeast High School this year, thanks to a new partnership between the Wichita school district and the city transit system.
According to a proposed contract, the district would pay Wichita Transit $126,000 this year — $42,000 per bus — for three city buses to transport students to Southeast High, at 127th Street East and Pawnee, each morning and back home after school.
That’s about $6,000 less than what the district would pay for three First Student buses to run the three routes, district officials said.
“We’re pretty excited, because it’s a win-win for us,” said Fabian Armendariz, director of operations for the Wichita school district.
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“It’s teaching our students life skills — how to ride a Wichita city bus — which could help them later on if they need to navigate public transportation,” he said. “We would love the opportunity to be able to expand this (service) in the future.”
The proposed contract, which school board members will consider later this month, marks the first time Wichita city buses would travel school bus routes, picking up students at designated stops.
The service is free for Southeast High students assigned to those routes. Other riders can ride along the expanded routes for the regular fare. For example, someone who lives near Southeast High could catch a city bus there in the morning and ride it into downtown.
Mike Tann, the city’s new transit director, said the partnership “could be the start of something big” for public transportation in Wichita. In many cities, students regularly ride city buses to and from school.
“We need to be wherever people live, where they work, where they shop and where they go to school,” Tann said. “Any fully functioning, strategically run transit system needs to have partnerships with schools and universities in the area.
“We’re a little behind here, and we’re playing a little game of catch-up.”
Last fall, the city and school district launched a partnership that lets students buy discounted city bus passes for traveling to school and elsewhere. But that program, aimed at students at seven middle schools and high schools, did not include Southeast High School because the school is outside the area normally served by city buses.
District officials said last spring that attendance at Southeast High — and consequently, its graduation rate — had suffered since the school moved to the far reaches of the district, near the Butler County line.
One reason, officials said, could be that it’s harder for students and families to get to the new school.
The new city bus routes pick students up in neighborhoods near the school’s old location, at Lincoln and Edgemoor, and travel along several major streets — Harry, Rock, Webb and Pawnee — to the school.
The new city bus routes are in addition to the more than 40 regular school buses that serve Southeast students.
Tann, the city transit director, said he hopes students get used to riding the city buses and explore the transit system further. Armendariz said expanding city bus routes and service could boost parent involvement at Southeast by making it easier for families to attend conferences and school events.
“It’s all about breaking down those barriers that naturally exist,” Tann said. “Once they get comfortable riding (a city bus) to school, they’ll be more likely to use public transportation to get to work or other places.
“This partnership, ultimately, is going to help the school district control its costs and get kids to school safely.”