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Future of Free Transit Rides Uncertain for Waco ISD Students

Waco ISD's David Ellis stands infront of the Waco Transit Center.

The collaboration with Waco ISD and the Waco Transit to provide free bus rides to help boost attendance for students is in question as the school year comes to a close. Administrators at Waco Transit say the program costs too much and it's unclear if Waco ISD will get more grant funding to keep the project going. KWBU's Jill Ament reports.

It’s the last day of school. And I’m taking a bus ride on Waco Transit with David Ellis.

He’s the Supervisor of Attendance, Truancy and Dropout Recovery and Prevention for Waco Independent School District.

“What I’m doing on the bus this morning is meeting students, hopefully some new students this morning, talking to them, getting their name and ID numbers so I can go back and actually look at their attendance and their grades compared to last year," said Ellis. 

"To see if there’s some improvement. And then just talking with them, asking them questions, if they like it, and how it would affect them if the program doesn’t continue next year.”

The program Ellis is talking about is a free public bus ride program Waco Transit offers to Waco ISD students needing another way to get to school, not including the summer. The rides typically cost a buck fifty. This bus in particular is headed to University High School and there are about five students on board this morning.

It’s one of several ideas the school board is implementing to try and boost attendance in Waco ISD. They set aside $25,000 for these types of programs in the 2013-2014 school year.

But funding for the transit program for next year is up in the air. That’s mainly because the $5,000 Waco ISD set aside for the bussing program didn’t match the amount of students who actually ride Waco Transit to school.

“We estimated based on a pilot program from previous years, somewhere between five to ten thousand, people… students would ride,” said Assistant General Manager for Waco Transit, Allen Hunter.

“By the end of this school year, we’re going to be well over 18,000 students. Based upon that and what we expect for this year, we anticipate the rider ship to go somewhere between 20 and 30,000.”

He says for the transit to afford this larger student ridership next year, Waco ISD  needs to basically triple the money… making the grant total $15,000  instead.  

Waco ISD's Ellis says he’s no stranger in talking with the folks of Waco Transit. He and the school board will be working hard in negotiating hopefully a three year contract throughout the summer.

 “This is one thing I’d really like to continue, " said Ellis. "I've met kids, any number of kids, one just had a baby. I met another middle school student who rides every day. I met a girl from Waco High who is able to have a job cause she can catch the transit bus from school to go to work." 

The Brazos River Credit Recovery Center is a high school for students who are in danger of failing to graduate. Average attendance in the 2012-2013 school year was 71.42 percent according to district records. Latest attendance for this school year is at 69.18 percent.

But Principal Robin Wilson says the bus program has been helpful for some students.

“We have 5 students who ride it regularly. And it makes a big difference for them to get to school," Wilson said.

"They all have good attendance. There are a few that sporadically ride the bus, but they’re not consistent.”

Brazos River student Michael Carney is one of the five who uses the city bus most every day.

“I arrive a little bit early sometimes, but we worked out a way and I have to leave a little bit early," Carney explains. "So we’ve also worked out so when I get here, I immediately get to work. My attendance hasn’t been off or anything so, I get here around the same time.”

District-wide attendance was at 94.8 percent this school year. Last year district records have attendance at a little over 96 percent. Ellis’s goal is to get it to 96 percent within the next few years, with highest attendance needs at J.H. Hines Elementary, Carver Middle School and South Waco Elementary.

Ellis says it’s no easy task.

“When you’re struggling to make it day to day, things get complicated. It makes it hard. Things are not going well at home, you’re not going to be a very good student," said Ellis.

"You’re not going to be as good a student as if you had plenty of food and plenty of clothes. Ways to get where you need to go. My staff, when we interact with those students and families, those are the kind of things we’re finding out.”

Ellis says he hopes all of the programs will be continued next year. Mainly it’s about messaging and doing everything possible to try and make sure kids are getting to school.

Jill Ament is a reporter at KWBU. She hails from right here in Central Texas, growing up down the road in Gatesville. She graduated from Texas State University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication in May of 2012.