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City Heights residents are set to rally Saturday to extend a pilot program that gave free transit passes to 1,000 high school students in central San Diego last year.

Thomas Poston, 17, is one of them. He uses the pass to take the trolley from San Diego High School near downtown to Encanto, where he lives. He said he could catch the school bus, but then he wouldn’t be able to stay late for math tutoring and make-up exams.

“The school bus doesn’t wait,” Poston said. “But the trolley does because it comes periodically. In a sense, it’s helping me raise my grades.”

That flexibility is a big part of why advocates bill the passes as “Youth Opportunity Passes.” In pitching the program to school and city officials last year, mid-city residents calling themselves the Improving Transportation in City Heights team said the passes would boost school attendance and empower low-income youth to intern and volunteer.

City Heights nonprofit Mid-City CAN hired a consultant to study the impact of the one-year pilot program, which cost San Diego Unified and the city of San Diego $200,000. The results of the study are not yet available. Anecdotally, supporters say the free passes have lifted a financial burden off families in City Heights and southeastern San Diego. The passes were reserved for students at risk of dropping out of school because their families couldn’t afford the $36 monthly youth pass and didn’t have access to a school bus.

“The parents are letting me know that they’re able to put food on the table and they are positive and sure their kids are getting to and from school safely,” said pass supporter Maria Cortez.

Poston said he’s not sure paying for a transit pass would have broken the bank for his parents, who both work. His dad is also going to school. But Poston said funding the program was an important gesture for elected officials.

“I think it’s actually about time because nobody really pays attention to [teenagers] that much,” Poston said. “They just think we’re, like, little thugs that walk around terrorizing stores.”

Poston said he hopes the program expands.

“I think it’s fair and, at the same time, unfair because why are you only giving them to four schools when there might be like 50 other schools in San Diego that need them?” Poston said.

The passes are currently available to students at San Diego, Hoover, Crawford and Lincoln high schools. Cortez said program organizers are heading to Sacramento this month to lobby for a statewide expansion in the coming years. They’re proposing the state’s cap-and-trade fund pay for it.

More immediately, Cortez said, the group is pushing to make the passes available countywide. The school district has already signed on, Cortez said. A City Council representative could not be reached.

Megan Burks

Megan Burks is a reporter for Speak City Heights, a media project of Voice of San Diego, KPBS, Media Arts Center and The AjA Project. You can contact her...

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