Ronak Shah: Better transit means real options for high school students

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One of the cleverest students I’ve ever taught comes late to school almost daily. In six hours of daily instruction, missing 15 minutes daily means missing seven full days over the course of the year. It was catching up with him, so I pulled him aside. “You’d feel more confident if you were here at the start of class.”

“I rode the school bus last year, so I was on time, but we moved to the west side,” he said. “Now it takes forever. But my dad didn’t want me to switch schools.”

I was grateful his family found a way to get him here. Late or not, he came consistently and didn’t face the destabilization of changing schools.

I’ve taught middle-schoolers for 12 years. Over a thousand are now students or alumni at the hundreds of district, charter and private high schools across greater Indianapolis. They’re all hunting for the best fit. But too often, families default to the school that’s easiest to get to. If they had access to a great rapid-transit network, they wouldn’t have to give up their choice.

That’s why it’s disheartening to see state Sen. Aaron Freeman’s proposal to scuttle the Blue Line.

Indy has worked hard to ensure every neighborhood has excellent schools, but we have a long way to go. And high school is the greatest challenge. To offer the variety of classes, languages, extracurriculars and vocational programs for well-rounded graduates, high schools need an economy of scale. Usually, that’s achieved in one of two ways: consolidation into a big school or specialized programs spread out in smaller schools. Either way, students need to reliably and safely get to and from where they learn.

Yet transportation is rapidly becoming education’s biggest barrier. Urban and suburban districts struggle equally with driver shortages. Students in shrinking rural districts face consolidation, leading to less sleep and further distances. For students at charter and private schools that don’t offer transportation, students need a car or drop-off to get to school at all, unless they can walk or bike. This hits families in poverty the hardest, as low-income students are much more likely to take the bus. World-class high school options offer nothing if students can’t equitably get to them.

One solution in our hands is a great public transit system, free to students. High school students ride public transit at much higher rates in most other cities our size, including Columbus, Ohio; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Nashville, Tennessee; and Kansas City, Missouri. IPS and Indy charters are just ramping up their programs, which means demand is ramping up as well. But IndyGo hasn’t had a network of rapid-transit lines reaching most of our city’s high schools.

The Blue Line is set to change that, bringing infrastructure and safety improvements alongside it. When operational, a student in the Meadows will be able to take buses using dedicated lanes to and from Purdue Polytechnic High School in Englewood more quickly and safely than any other form of traffic on those roads. A student in Hawthorne will be able to be dropped off two blocks from Arsenal Tech’s welding program. A student in Cumberland could attend evening programs at Ivy Tech Community College.

The bus rapid-transit system is one of the best tools in ensuring all students have equitable access to high school options. Last year, the state recognized transportation’s importance to education by funding it in its high school workforce expansion. I hope the Legislature sustains that value this year and protects the right for students to get to the schools they choose.•

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Shah is a seventh-grade science teacher and a Teach Plus senior writing fellow.

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