The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round

A retrofitted Muni bus offers an alternative route to a high school diploma.

On Board Five Keys bus (Photo by Jessica Christian)

Old Muni buses retired from their routes don’t often get new, innovative purposes, but in recent years several of them have undergone renovations to support radical change. In 2013, Lava Mae converted several buses into mobile showers and toilets, to “rekindle dignity” for those living on the streets of San Francisco. Now, a high school has caught on to the trend. Five Keys Charter launched a mobile classroom at the end of June to target those who have yet to secure a diploma.

Founded in 2008 by the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department as the first-ever charter school to open up in jail, Five Keys has expanded to other counties to work with at-risk youth and adults, specifically those who “choose not to attend a nearby campus to receive their high school or equivalency diploma because they would have to cross gang lines or are unable to pay for public transportation.”

The program has been wildly successful, and today it serves 5,000 students each day — 3,000 in jail, and 2,000 in learning centers throughout the Bay Area. California’s recidivism rate is 68 percent, but only 28 percent of students who’ve gone through the Five Keys program return to jail.

The new bus will follow a regular, yet-to-be-determined route through Bayview-Hunters Point, Potrero Hill, Sunnydale, and the Tenderloin. Five Keys plans to stop at four or five set sites, located in public housing projects, a week.

It’s estimated by the San Francisco Office of Workforce and Economic Development that 36,000 adults in San Francisco do not have a high-school diploma. These numbers are grouped more densely in the neighborhoods listed above; in Bayview-Hunters Point, 7,800 adults have not yet received their degree. Once rolling, the mobile school hopes to work with around 60 students per week.

“The ZIP code you’re born into shouldn’t determine your future,” says Five Keys Executive Director Steve Good, “so we came up with the solution of taking education directly into the housing projects to eliminate the main barriers to receiving a high school diploma. We want to give those [individuals], many of whom have been let down by the system, a second chance at an education,”

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency gave the bus to the school and aside from the exterior shell, it retains little resemblance to its people-transporting days of yore. The exterior has been painted two shades of green, and inside are rows of laptop computers for students to use. Benches lined with plants offer a comfortable reading space at the rear. When parked, it runs off of a 10,000-watt generator. All told, the retrofit cost $250,000, almost half of which was donated by Google. If successful, the program may launch more buses in Oakland and Los Angeles.

As Lava Mae does, Five Keys uses the word “dignity” when describing its mission.

“It’s about bringing dignity, service and responsiveness to those who have been forgotten,” co-founder Sunny Schwartz says. “Education is a key factor to people’s self-determination and livelihood.”

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