Today was not only the first day back in class for Minneapolis Public Schools students, it also marks the first day of using public transit to get many students in that district to school.
Instead of the traditional yellow school buses, Metro Transit buses and trains are now taking thousands of high school students to school.
School officials say public transportation will offer more flexibility for students. But some people are concerned it's not the safest way for students to get to school.
Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson boarded a Metro Transit bus early Monday morning as it headed out to pick up students.
Johnson praises the benefits of city buses and trains for Minneapolis high school students. Chief among them is attendance.
Under the traditional yellow bus system, students who missed their rides may opt to stay home, especially if they can't find another way to school.
Johnson said a test of the program showed access to Metro Transit buses and trains boosted student attendance.
"We've had about 2,000 high schools students who've been using Metro Transit cards over the last couple of years and we've noticed that their attendance is stronger than students who are not," Johnson said.
This year, Minneapolis will offer MetroTransit cards to as many as 4,000 students in six of the city's eight high schools. The $1.2 million cost doesn't offer any savings over the old system.
By next year, all Minneapolis high school students eligible for busing will be added to the program. Students can use public transportation for more than just the trip to school. Under the new plan, students can take a train or a bus free of charge from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., daily.
That means students will be able to get a ride, even at odd hours, Johnson said.
"For those students who don't have ... access to the same quality of transportation, they have an opportunity to engage in after-school activities and events at a higher participation rate than ever before," she said.
That's the best part according Katherine Gnali, 16, and a junior from Minneapolis who rode a Metro Transit bus to Thomas Edison High School this morning.
During the pilot project, Gnali found public transportation a convenient way to get home when there was no school bus to take, such as after volleyball practice.
"It's good because it helps me get to and from practices," Gnali said. "That's basically what I've been using it for."
Gnali admits she was apprehensive about switching from the old yellow school bus.
"I was a little worried about it. You just can't predict what's going to happen on the city bus," Gnal said.
A city bus, after all, is open to the public. Gnali and her friends have shared unnerving rides with drunken bus patrons. Sometimes things get downright scary, Gnali said. She's seen people arguing and even fighting on the bus.
Some parents of Minneapolis high school students expressed similar safety concerns at school board meetings as late as this month. It's also something that those at the Minnesota School Bus Operators Association say they worry about.
Shelly Jonas, owner of a school bus company in Annandale and the group's executive director, maintains her members are geared toward student transportation.
"That's what we're trained for. Metro Transit was set up for commuters, not necessarily schoolchildren." Jonas said.
Of course, the state's school bus operators have a financial stake in this situation. Jonas said her group is worried about public transportation competing with private school bus companies, but she maintains school buses are safer than city buses. The buses are covered with warning lights on the outside, and equipped with tall padded seats on the inside. And they're not open to the public.
Minneapolis school officials say they have encountered few problems with safety during their two-year pilot project and don't expect any major issues going forward. They say students getting used to the switch can get help navigating the system in coming weeks from youth advocates riding the buses.