South Jordan • The first bus rolled up to Valley High School just after 8:30 a.m. the Monday following Thanksgiving break. About 15 students descended upon the campus, many with earbuds blaring music as they entered the South Jordan school’s atrium newly aglow with holiday decor.
For the dozens of other schools in Jordan School District, the commuting scene would be routine. But for Sharon Jensen, principal at Valley High — Jordan district’s lone alternative high school — students disembarking from their buses is a sight she cherishes every morning.
Having school bus service for the first time in 40 years, Jensen said, makes a world of difference for students who, for want of a ride each day, might not otherwise have access to Valley High’s special services.
“We are essentially a dropout-prevention program,” the principal said. “And you can’t expect success by offering a different education model and no means for many students to access it.”
Nearly three years ago, the Jordan district school board voted to spend about $61,000 to create new bus routes, which have been put in place slowly and now operate with stops in Riverton, Herriman, West Jordan and South Jordan.
Valley High offers a 24-credit diploma program, with morning and afternoon class schedules and a four-day school week to accommodate working students or those who’ve run into issues with traditional school schedules. Jensen said the majority of students transfer to Valley after counselors and assistant principals at other high schools recommend them for a different learning environment.
The school’s student body fluctuates in size throughout the year but is currently at roughly 600. Jensen said most are juniors and seniors, many of whom are teen parents, live a transient lifestyle, have social anxiety or have had disciplinary issues in the past.
Between 40 and 45 students now ride school buses to Valley High each day, a number Jensen said she expects will grow every quarter.
When the bus route proposal for Valley High first came before the school board, member Jen Atwood said she was an enthusiastic supporter of the idea — even though the district had to use its own dollars to pay for it. State law does not provide funding for bus transportation for schools that draw students from outside their designated boundaries through open enrollment.
As a Valley High graduate herself, Atwood said she could empathize with students looking to “put their education first despite obstacles in their lives.”
“Not every student is traditional and they may need something outside of what they are experiencing from the high schools in their areas,” she said. “I’m glad the rest of the board felt that needed to be an option for [Valley students] too.”
Jordan district isn’t alone in seeking to make it easier for its non-traditional students to get to schools suited to their needs.
Salt Lake City School District provides a Utah Transit Authority pass for about 320 students who live outside a two-mile radius of its alternative school, Horizonte Instruction and Training Center. Canyons School District buses students to Diamond Ridge High School to and from locations near the high schools they would otherwise attend in their neighborhoods.
Before a Jordan bus route was extended to Valley High, many students who were struggling elsewhere in the district had no other choice for their schooling.
Alicia Garcia, now a junior, said before she learned about the new bus stops, she would use the ride-sharing service Uber, hitch rides with friends or even walk to or from school to pursue her academic goals.
Attending at Valley High wasn’t even an option for 17-year-old Mercedes Martinez — until the bus routes started. Both of her parents work early schedules and commuting from West Jordan without a car wasn’t feasible.
Now a senior, Martinez recounted habitually skipping class before she switch to Valley this year. There wasn’t a point in going to class, she said, when she felt so far behind, which led to her skipping more classes.
Subjects such as math and science that once baffled Martinez are now her favorites. These days, she is even considering her future after graduation – a milestone she was once unsure she’d ever reach.
“I didn’t always think I would have options after school,” Martinez said. “I couldn’t even think of what I wanted to do but now I have so much and people who believe in me.”