Kammie Sifonte, 14, protests budget cuts that would eliminate free student Metrocards outside of the MTA's Manhattan headquarters.
Kammie Sifonte, 14, stood outside MTA's Manhattan headquarters, protesting budget cuts that would eliminate free student Metrocards.

Hundreds of New York City high school students rallied outside of the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Manhattan headquarters this afternoon to protest budget cuts that would eliminate free student Metrocards.

The students came from all corners of the city, responding to a hastily organized call made over Facebook. They came from Manhattan’s School of the Future and Millenium High School, from Brooklyn’s Cypress Hills High School and Franklin K. Lane High School, from the High School of American Studies and Our Savior Lutheran High School in the Bronx, among many others. Many of them left their schools early, with or without the permission of their principals. Others were accompanied by their teachers and parents.

They gathered at the MTA’s Midtown headquarters to send the message that the elimination of free student transportation would drastically hurt their ability to attend quality schools. Students predicted increased financial hardship for their families, forcing them to return to their zone schools, a prospect many said they wanted to avoid. Others predicted they might drop out altogether.

The MTA board is currently in a public comment period on the cuts, which they passed last week and will vote on early in the new year. If the plan is approved, students would begin to pay for half-price passes beginning next school year and would pay full price beginning in September 2011. New York City students have received free or reduced fares since 1948.

Students gathered from schools around the city.
Students gathered from schools around the city.

Jessie Byrd, 14, said she travels 30 to 40 minutes each day from her home in East Harlem to the School of the Future, where she is a freshman. Next year she intends to transfer to Bayside High School in Queens, drawn by their arts and music curriculum, but those plans will be thrown into doubt, she said, if her free Metrocards disappear.

“My mom has been struggling, barely getting by, getting money for lunch,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to waste my $4.50 for lunch just getting to school.”

Next to Byrd, 14-year-old Kammie Sifonte and her twin brother Danny, both freshman at School of the Future, said that lower classmen would be disproportionately harmed by the plan. “We’ll still be in school in 2011, and we’re too young to get jobs to help us pay for the cost,” said Danny.

The Sifontes energetically waved a handwritten sign at the oncoming traffic that read, “honk your horn for student Metrocards.” A passing MTA bus driver blared his, and students cheered.

Kammie Sifonte said that if the budget plan passes, she would most likely transfer to her zone school, as would many of her classmates at School of the Future. “We’re an accelerated high school, so we have kids from the Bronx, Brooklyn, Staten Island,” she said.

Other students were more pessimistic. “I probably wouldn’t go to school,” said Louis Shanoc, 16, a sophomore at Manhattan’s High School of Art and Design.

“I would still have to take the bus to get to my zone school,” added Amanda Hernandez, 15, also a sophomore at Art and Design.

Losing subsidized transportation to school was a further hardship in an environment where students are already losing services at their schools, they said. Hernandez and Shanoc, along with Arts and Design junior Jhaton Watson, 15, listed a litany of cuts to foreign language and arts programs their school has already sustained. “They’re cutting things at our school, but they’re making us pay to go there,” Hernandez said.

A parent outlined how her family's expenses would be affected by having to pay for an additional two monthly MTA passes for her children.
A parent outlined how her family

Adults sprinkled themselves throughout the crowd. City Councilman Charles Barron, who is running for Council Speaker, worked his way down the block, shaking students’ hands, flanked by his wife, State Assemblywoman Inez Barron. Teachers, parents and political organizers mingled with the teenagers.

Organizers blasted Jay-Z’s and Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind” from loudspeakers and the crowd of students began to sing along, waving their signs as if at a concert, their voices rising over city traffic.

“For all the political guys that are here, this is really just a bunch of kids who used their technology to get together,” said Ed Goldman, a retired teacher at Brooklyn Tech who heard about the protest through students’ online organizing.

Jordan Orvam, a senior at Our Savior Lutheran High School in the Bronx, said he started a Facebook group to protest the cuts after reading about them in the Daily News on December 13.  When he logged on again hours later, he said, 7,000 people had joined the group. More than 73,000 people have joined the online group in the week since he started it. With the help of community organizers, he and other students in the group organized the rally in four days.

Kyle Maer, a sophomore at Bronx High School of Science who organized the Facebook group with Orvam, said students are trying to organize protests at every city high school on the day students return to school after their winter holiday, which begins this week.