Pass Imperfect: With Metro costs going up, Jenkins can?t always afford to get to class. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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For 17-year-old Roneka Jenkins and her siblings, the beginning of the month often brings a tough choice: food or school.

Jenkins is one of 10 children, seven of whom are school-age. She attends Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter High School in Southeast and scored a college scholarship for up to $50,000 last year from the District of Columbia College Success Foundation.

For years, Jenkins and her family have used Metro’s SmartStudent monthly passes to get around. She takes the V7, V8, or V9 bus from home. Then, she gets off at Pennsylvania Avenue SE and transfers to the B2. Her siblings take a mix of buses and trains. Since Jenkins started high school, there have been at least a dozen times, she estimates, that some of her siblings have had to miss school at the beginning of the month because the family simply couldn’t afford all the passes. Around that period, the budget always tightens.

“We try to save money from the past month. We don’t go grocery shopping until later that month,” she says. “We eat breakfast and lunch at school, macaroni or cereal for dinner.”

And that happened before the price hike.

As of January 2008, the cost of the pass jumped from $22 to $26, part of a massive package of fare increases approved by Metro in December.

This month, some of Jenkins’ siblings didn’t get the pass until Feb. 12. In the interim, they were mostly “staying at home or being out in the streets,” Jenkins says. “I worry about them getting in trouble.”

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Plenty of other kids are feeling the pinch as well. Students attending schools across the city say they’re struggling to keep up with the price hike. Parents expect to give their kids a certain amount of money for the pass. Between groceries and bills, they haven’t adjusted to the change.

Jenkins’ mother, Rosalyn Harling, says she starts saving money for the passes in the middle of each month. She believes she’s not the only parent worried about absorbing the cost adjustment. “I have heard a couple parents say things when they went to buy passes. And I know for a fact it’s been a struggle for me. That’s like a whole other bill,” says Harling, who works as a bus attendant for the D.C. public schools.

When it comes to finding four extra dollars, the kids often have to make up the difference. “Some people just don’t have money to spend like that. They have to squeeze their pennies,” says Kris Stith, a junior at Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Georgetown. When some students think about fare changes, he says, they anticipate paying a few more cents for the bus or train. But paying four more dollars all at once?

“Does it cost that much extra to print plastic?” Stith jokes. The day he planned to buy the pass for this month, he forgot about the price change and brought the wrong amount of money to school. Then he had to cobble together funds for the next school day and find the money for the pass.

Already, many of Stith’s schoolmates work at shops in Georgetown. Stith and his twin brother Keagoe both get stipends from a tutoring program in Southeast. For them, the price hike has mostly been a hassle.

Metro announced its proposed fare hike last fall. In November, there were two public hearings in the District to solicit comments. DCPS, however, was not fully informed of how the changes might affect its student body, says schools spokesperson Mafara Hobson.

“Everybody I asked, no one even knew the increase was coming. I can say there was no outreach,” says Hobson. “I even spoke to the deputy mayor [Victor Reinoso], and he didn’t know anything about it.”

Tyesha Sands, a senior at Young America Works Public Charter Vocational High School in Northeast, says she missed five days earlier this month, since she wasn’t able to gather enough money right away. “It really throws my whole schedule out of whack,” she says. “It’s frustrating. It’s boring, too. I don’t like to miss school.”

Some students have used the new price to justify skipping school, Sands says. Pre-hike, the cost was already steep, she explains. Now, people complain that $26 is just too high.

“A lot of my friends that used to come to school a lot just stopped coming,” says Sands. “Some students are looking for a reason not to come.”

Peter N. Smith, principal of the Young America Works school, says he hasn’t noticed a drop in attendance since Metro prices increased. But even before the change went into effect, he and other staff members frequently provided students with money to buy their passes.

“We’ve done it in the past, but I know I’ve done it in the past two months, too. We just do it out of our own pocket,” he says. “I know that for kids coming from east of the Anacostia River, that’s been a huge challenge. A lot of parents just don’t have it.”

Smith says he’s considering doling out free Metro passes to honor roll students as an incentive to work hard.

At Jenkins’ house, a careful selection process governs which siblings get to go to school and which siblings don’t. Since she is a graduating, college-bound senior, she often gets preference. This month, she and her 13-year-old sister Shamika both got passes on the first day of the month. The next day, her aunt bought a pass for her 14-year-old sister, Jasmine. The following week, one of her sisters stayed out of school so her brother could take the bus to study for his G.E.D. test.

If all goes according to plan, Jenkins will graduate and then head off to University of Maryland-Eastern Shore. She purposely chose that school because it was close. Out of all her siblings, she’s the only one with a job; she works with Stith at the nonprofit in Southeast. Her mom relies on her to help with groceries and other expenses.

As for the upcoming months, Jenkins expects the Metro trade-offs to diminish. She says she’s going to get some days off for senior class trips and portfolio week, a time when seniors do special independent projects and don’t come to school every day.

“Then, we can just split passes,” she says.