Rethinking school transportation is crucial for Denver’s at-risk youth | Opinion

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Jerene Peterson


In 2018, when I was Deputy Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Human Services, data from our partners at the Colorado Department of Education revealed that while the overall high school graduation rate on 4 years in our state was over 80%, foster kids had a graduation rate of about 23%. Additionally, we learned that half of Colorado students in our foster care system change schools at least once, and often multiple times a year, disrupting their learning – studies show that each time a student changes school, they lose four months of academic progress — and emotional stability.

Safe, free and easy-to-use direct transport from foster home to school is imperative to help these young people get to school.

Think about this: What happens when a foster child changes foster care to another school district at 5:00 p.m. on Tuesday evening in the middle of the school year? This child has the federal right to stay in this school, but school districts cannot provide transportation outside of their boundaries. And even if they could, there’s no way a district could reroute its bus system to accommodate this child until 8 a.m. Wednesday morning. At the Department of Human Services, in partnership with the Colorado Department of Education, we were determined to find a way to solve this problem.

With the support of the General Assembly, we passed HB18-1306, which created an Education Stabilization Grant program to fund these transportation services, ensuring that students can still attend their home schools. After clearing this legislative hurdle, we thought the next steps would be easy. Little did we know that the real challenge was finding a service provider that was both highly skilled in transporting students and dynamic enough to work outside of the school district’s designed transportation model. Although school districts are required to provide home school transportation for their students in the foster care system, contracts to facilitate this service are often made with county child welfare organizations. It’s not always as easy as placing a foster child on the school bus. The solution had to work outside of these boundaries to bring young people across district and county boundaries.

When the state Department of Social Services issued a request for proposal for this type of transportation service, it received no qualified applicants. We started researching how other hospitality service agencies have solved this problem. Los Angeles County — the nation’s largest child welfare system — used a transportation network company (TNC), HopSkipDrive. It was that thinking outside the box that we needed to bring to Colorado.

We determined that HopSkipDrive could replicate its model in Colorado under the regulations of the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), which strictly regulates TNCs.

Through local and county governments, HopSkipDrive has provided more than 49,000 rides for foster children. It is 49,000 times that a student has been able to access a stable school environment.

Fortunately, our work continues. This legislative session, the Colorado State Legislature voted in favor of SB 22-144, which clarifies that TNCs can pursue partnerships with school districts and county child welfare agencies.

I hope this legislation preserves the solution we fought for in 2018, cementing alternative solutions like HopSkipDrive into our student transportation infrastructure and with it, new data will show that graduation rates for young people in families d are up.

Jerene Petersen served as Deputy Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Human Services under Governors Hickenlooper and Polis. She consults in the area of ​​child protection, is a member of the advisory board of Denver Human Services and an executive advisor to Mile High United Way. Jerene is also appointed by the Polis administration to the Child Protection Ombudsman Board and volunteers with CASA.

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