Our May cover story: Teens fight to save the PPS YouthPass

youthpass dekEditor’s note: This is the cover story from the print issue going to subscribers next week. Our cover stories are usually hard to reproduce online, but this one is less graphical than most – and the subject is too important and too urgent, I think, not to share. -MA

It’s coming up on 9 a.m. at the Porter-Lang household, and the living room is humming like a motor.

Laura, 18, is munching a doughnut. Gabby, 16, has just finished her hair. Bridgette, 15, is keeping track of the cat. All three Jefferson High students are simultaneously typing, nonstop, on their cell phones.

“It’s okay if we miss this bus,” Bridgette says. “There’s another one behind it.”

Bridgette FreemanThe little house, the family’s 10th in 15 years, is the kind of well-kept NoPo rental that keeps a globe of the world in the living room, between the potted plants and the Firefly DVDs. Tania Porter, their mom, is off to PSU in the family car; Natalie, the friend who’s been living with them, is already out the door, too.

This afternoon, the sisters will scatter: volleyball, softball. Gabby volunteers at the hospital. If Bridgette doesn’t have a shift at Bloom’s Natural Healthcare, where she works as a secretary’s assistant, she might ride downtown to see her uncle.

Time to go. Bridgette Lang swings a huge duffel bag across one hip and the three head out to catch the 4.

* * *

If she’d won an argument with her mother, Lang would be walking to school – to Roosevelt High, less than a mile away.

“I wanted to go to Roosevelt, only because it was closer,” said Lang, ticking through their 2010 debate. “But it also had a worse reputation. But it also had a better sports team. But Jefferson was state champions.”

Bridgette Freeman and family at the bus stopThen Lang was accepted into Jefferson Middle College, a program that sends Jeff students to classes at Portland Community College. And that, Lang said, was that.

“My mom was like, ‘No. You’re going to Jefferson,'” she said.

Today, Lang says she’s glad she did. She loves the small, close-knit school, where she’s the only freshman taking college courses, she said.

“I’m going to have my associate’s degree by the time I’m a senior, for free,” Lang said, in awe. “I’m saving, like, $40,000.”

After school, she rides the 4 to volleyball practice at SEI, a nonprofit youth center off Mississippi. Her coordinator at SEI, which also offers academic support, has been impressed.

“He basically told me a couple months ago, ‘Bridgette, you’re on your way to valedictorian,'” Lang said proudly.

* * *

The sun is setting over Portland City Hall, but the committee to save the YouthPass is just warming up.

Leaning on the end of the table in Mayor Sam Adams’ third-floor meeting room, Todd Diskin holds up a one-page flyer he’s put together at the request of the Multnomah Youth Commission.

Multnomah Youth Commission“Your TriMet YouthPass is at risk!” it says. “Take action today!”

“The Portland Schools Foundation may be able to help with the mailing,” Diskin, a 45-year-old city staffer, tells the four teens at the table, members of the youth commission’s sustainability committee. “Not with the postage, but with getting a nonprofit rate. That would mean adding their logo somewhere.”

The teens pass around the flyer, a grayscale photocopy that will be printed and mailed to PPS high schoolers. It’ll cost $3,600, scraped together from the mayor’s office budget.

The youth commissioners are worried. Will students understand that they’re just being asked to sign and mail a postcard?

“Most students who have YouthPasses don’t even know where it comes from,” says Cleveland sophomore Miles Ingram. “As far as they know, it just kind of drops out of the sky.”

* * *

To Lang’s family and the thousands of others that now use the passes daily, it must have seemed that way.

When Jefferson and Franklin high schools rolled out the program in 2009 – it expanded to every PPS high school and alternative school last fall – it wasn’t the fruit of an expensive legislative campaign or public budget battle.

Freeman's PPS student ID, with a YouthPass stickerInstead, it was the work of the Multnomah Youth Commission, a low-profile group of teen volunteers who meet after school.

When former Mayor Tom Potter spent a week at Jefferson in 2008, he concluded that one of the troubled school’s biggest problems was a lack of reliable transportation. One survey from earlier in the decade found that 11% of north and northeast high schoolers dropped out for transportation-related reasons.

Districtwide, 46% of PPS students fail to graduate on time.

In 2008, TriMet was free only to poor students who lived more than 1.5 miles from school and who – unlike, for example, Bridgette Lang – attended their neighborhood school.

facts about YouthPass usagePotter asked the MYC to look for a solution. With the help of city staff, they found one: A state conservation tax credit, already in use in Eugene, that could be used to pay for anything that reduced auto travel.

Youth commissioners lined up meetings – TriMet, city council, school board – and explained how a bus pass can change a teen’s life.

“We had ideas about this, but the MYC really spearheaded,” PPS transportation director Andy Leibenguth said last month. “They got all the boards and the commissions to agree.”

It worked. By 2010, the three agencies were collaborating on a $3.5 million program to give free citywide transportation to 13,000 urban teens. Today, 80% of students say they use the passes every week.

It was a huge victory for the MYC, founded 15 years ago as one of the country’s first municipal advisory bodies that consist entirely of people under 21.

“That’s what put the Youth Commission on the map,” said Julie Petrokubi, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin studying the MYC for her doctoral thesis. “It’s what gets the kids to come.”

* * *

state Rep. Tobias ReadState Rep. Tobias Read has heard quite enough good ideas for how to spend Oregon’s shrinking tax revenue.

Everyone in Oregon, the Beaverton Democrat said, has a favorite program. What they don’t all have, he said, is an argument.

Read, who co-chairs the House transportation committee that may decide whether the state’s keeps putting $2.7 million toward YouthPass, said that to survive, a program has to be as important as anything else the state does.

“The argument needs to be that this is more important than days of school,” Read told PortlandAfoot.org on April 5. “More important than people getting their medication.”

Youth Commissioner Katherine WestomorelandMYC members think YouthPass, whose annual cost is about the same as three hours of a school day at Portland Public, meets Read’s standard. They’ve got until a May 12 revenue forecast to make their case.

TriMet, city and school district have all offered help, but none made YouthPass a top legislative priority. Though MYC members signed up to be policy advisors, not political organizers, they’ve taken on the task more or less alone.

In the end, said Katherine Westmoreland, a senior on the commission, the only people who understand how much YouthPass matters to teens may be teens themselves.

“I think it’d be taken a lot more seriously,” she said, “if it was 13,000 voters that were going to have free bus passes taken away.”

Want to weigh in? For the latest, visit the MYC’s YouthPass Facebook page. Also, see our follow-up post on the legislators who may decide this issue.

Black and white photos by Michael Schoenholtz.

An earlier version of this article gave the wrong last name for Bridgette Lang. We regret the error.

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