The Portland school board will look at the district’s transportation eligibility requirements after being asked to do so by a group of high school students trying to reduce barriers to education.

During a presentation to the school board earlier this month, a small group of Deering High School juniors talked about their successful push to institute a late bus for students participating in activities after school, and asked officials to consider allowing more students access to school buses.

Currently, high school students who live closer than two miles from school are not eligible to ride the buses. They do get a discount to ride city buses, but must show their student ID. Students say it can be too expensive – as much as $360 a year – and too inconvenient for some of their classmates to ride the Metro bus, and they may instead stay home during bad weather.

Sarah Thompson, the school board’s chairwoman, said the panel has asked district staff to compile information and a recommendation on the possibility of changing the radius, although she cautioned that she doesn’t see it being changed “in the foreseeable future.” She said there will be a community discussion about the issue.

“Due to current budget limitations, we have to pick and choose what we do, but we will continue to explore it,” Thompson said. She commended the students for making the board’s job easier by researching the issue and providing their findings in the form of a video starring students and teachers.

Kevin Mallory, the district’s transportation director, said the eligibility distance has not changed since 1986. A preliminary estimate showed it would cost the district $300,000 to $400,000 if the eligibility requirement is lowered by a half-mile because three or four new buses would need to be purchased and new drivers hired.

“While it’s a great idea and it may offer kids more opportunity to get to school and have more access to public education, there’s a dollar figure attached to it,” Mallory said. “With budgets the way they are, it’s unlikely to happen when we already can’t put enough into the classroom.”

The students – all juniors in Suzanne Dodson’s cultural and linguistics class – produced a nearly eight-minute video about the need for a late bus after identifying transportation as a barrier to education and co-curricular activities for some of their classmates. After talking to school officials, they found $8,000 was available in a fund for co-curricular activities; that is being used to pay for a pilot late bus three days a week for the rest of the year.

While researching transportation issues, they discovered that some students who live less than two miles from school are less likely to stay after school for academic help or activities. They decided to expand their effort to include a review of the eligibility rule.

“We started looking at getting a late bus, and that evolved into shortening the eligibility distance for transportation,” said 17-year-old Abdul Isack, who narrates the video. “We realized that Portland was one of the few districts that had two miles as their requirement. Even if we go down a quarter-mile, that little bit would make all the difference.”

Bangor schools have a 1.75-mile requirement, and South Portland and Westbrook each provide transportation to high school students who live more than 1.5 miles from school. Gorham allows students who live more than one mile from school to ride the bus.

Outside of Maine, Boston also has a two-mile eligibility requirement for high school students. In Manchester, N.H., high school students can take a school bus if they live more than 1.4 miles from school, but they must buy tickets. Manchester schools make exceptions to the eligibility requirement when students would have to cross dangerous or busy roads.

In Portland, Vanessa Hakizimana, 16, lives 1.9 miles from Deering High. She said that distance can be too far to walk, especially during winter. Before the late bus started running, she often found herself waiting for a ride at school long after her activities were over and everyone else was gone.

All Deering students – no matter how far they live from the school – are allowed to ride the late bus.

For now, the Deering late bus is considered a pilot program and could continue if it is popular with students. Mallory, the transportation director, said Portland and Casco Bay high school students have expressed interest in starting late buses, too.

Aubine Ntibandetse, 18, said she is happy that the class’s project caught the attention of the school board. She hopes board members give serious consideration to lowering the eligibility requirement.

“It will change the life of many students here at Deering and in Portland,” she said.

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

ggraham@pressherald.com

Twitter: grahamgillian