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Teamwork, Plus Bus, Equals After-School SuccessPrint

Thriving Communities | March 29, 2012 | By Glenn Puit

Jemario Raglin needs help with his geometry studies, and the Thompsonville teen is getting it thanks to the non-profit group SEEDS—and Benzie County’s public bus system.

Jemario Raglin is a student at Benzie Central schools. He participates in SEEDS' after-school programs and then relies on the Benzie Bus to get home.

Raglin, a 16-year-old high school sophomore, lives in rural northern Michigan, where big stretches of farmland and deep forests separate most communities and make it much more difficult for families and kids to use the services they need—including tutoring and other after-school activities.

Raglin said he was struggling with geometry, so he sought help from a tutor offered via SEEDS at Benzie County Central High School. To help make that program work, SEEDS relies on the county’s public transit system to take students like Raglin home at 6 p.m., long after the school bus has departed.

It’s made a big difference for the teenager.

“Geometry is hard,” said Raglin. “I started getting help, and now I’m getting good grades (in geometry.)”

Having public transit for kids in rural areas who want or need to stay late at school is critical to keeping them active and healthy, said SEEDS Site Coordinator Joshua Stoltz. It allows the environmental non-profit to make a difference in young people’s lives.

“It’s especially important here in rural Benzie County because it’s quite a drive just to get to one of the nearby villages,” Mr. Stoltz said. “Between the middle and high school, we’ve had days where we have 30 kids ride the (public transit) bus.”

“Without transportation, a lot of kids get stuck at home,” he added.

The ability of public transit to help struggling families get to services they need was highlighted in the Michigan Land Use Institute’s 2011 report, Families on the Edge. The report identified transportation costs as a large financial obstacle to many rural families as they try to better their prospects by getting to jobs, schools, and other places crucial to their future. Those prospects, the report said, are considerably dimmer without quick, dependable, affordable transportation.

Families in northern Michigan’s rural counties, where unemployment and poverty rates are particularly high, spend on average $11,540 a year to operate their cars—despite the fact that the median income in those counties is $36,000 or less. Those working on poverty’s front lines in the region say the inability of low-income families to afford cars means missed chances for teens and children, who get left behind when they cannot get to the help, employment, or education they need.

Video interviews with several Benzie County teens reveal how their difficulty finding adequate transportation holds them back.

And, the growing recognition that inadequate public transportation can hold back rural families’ prospects is fueling the push to improve it.

For example, the Grand Vision Transportation Network is working to improve public bus systems in Benzie, Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Wexford, and Kalkaska Counties. A key approach involves networking and partnerships like the one between SEEDS and Benzie Bus.

Chad Hollenbeck, operations manager for the Benzie Bus, said his organization is very pleased with the way the SEEDS partnership is working out.

“We often have three to four buses at one time at the school to take students to their destination,” he said. “We participate because students are no different than any other passenger. They need transportation, too, and if they couldn’t get a ride on the Benzie Bus, they might not be able to participate in this after school program.”

And, for students like Raglin and Cailin Ashbaugh, 17, of Interlochen, the ability to participate in the SEEDS after school program, and then take Benzie Bus home, makes them much more likely to use public transit in the future.

“It’s so much better than staying home and watching TV,” Ms. Ashbaugh said. “I don’t have to pay for gas…and I don’t have to go through my dad or through friends or anyone else for a ride to get home. I like riding the bus. It’s convenient.”

Glenn Puit is a policy specialist at the Michigan Land Use Institute.