What do you see as some of the key issues for school bus operations across the nation right now?
Chris Ellison, director of transportation for Greater Albany (Ore.) Public Schools and president of the Oregon Pupil Transportation Association
ELLISON: One is bullying. OPTA is putting on a workshop for drivers in February. We did this two years ago with train awareness. We did a full mock disaster drill and made a video of it. We presented it in front of about 800 school bus drivers from all around the state. And then we kind of sat back and reloaded and decided we're going to tackle bullying. We've been planning this for seven months. We do a video to kind of set up the scenario, and then we go with the live exercise. It's multi-agency: city police, state police, county sheriff and then ultimately a SWAT team coming in. The twist of this is it's a student that's been bullied to the point of, "What are you going to do?" That's a recurring theme with bullies. We're excited about this, and it's hitting right at the perfect time. Not that there is a perfect time - but with it in everyone's mind, it just reinforces that something's got to be done.
MESLIN: What I'm focusing on, especially as I see it happening nationally, is student achievement. We tend to think of ourselves as the people who safely deliver students to school, and then the educators take over and educate the kids. That's not at all the model that we're going to have to maintain if we're going to continue in this kind of an economy. If we're not educators, then we're not going to exist, because the cuts are going to be away from the classroom, if at all possible. And unless we're educators, we're going to be gone. Certainly in terms of regular-ed, and in many cases, in terms of special-ed - depending on how you have it set up.
The other focus is in serving students with special needs in a less restrictive setting. This means that if a student is capable of being served not at the curb, and has learned the skills and the abilities to move away from the curb (we have taught them those skills), then they're ready to go to a corner bus stop, or a stop a block away, etc. As we implement that, and we have implemented much of that in our district, students learn independence. It's great for the budget, and it's great for our people, who are actually educators, and it forces those partnerships that some of us have been talking about for years. And we take pride in that as part of the professional learning community, we're involved in decisions that help improve student achievement.
LAWRENCE: That's a great thing, as long as it doesn't jeopardize safety, because once these kids graduate, they're not riding yellow buses. You might be coded as special-ed and have a door-to-door stop, but once you age out, you're taking transit or paratransit.
MESLIN: We're actually teaching life skills, but not waiting until students are 19 years old to teach it. And it's exciting to see students progress. You see the success stories - kids saying, "Gee, now I'm finally on my own and independent." We had a part in that, as opposed to just the classroom educators.
LAWRENCE: To kind of piggyback with that, about the education of the student, one of the big things that we hit in our district is that transportation people have to make sure - and it ties into the bullying - that we're transporting students ready to learn. If they're scared senseless, where they're not wanting to ride the bus, they're not ready to learn.
One of the things that concerns me is that with these tight budget times, states are looking at extending walking distances. Some of it is necessary. In my state, New York, the walking distance for K through sixth grade is two miles, and three miles for seventh through twelfth grade. However, boards of education have made them smaller. In my district, K through sixth grade is a quarter-mile; seventh through twelfth grade is a half-mile. So could we extend it? Absolutely, in some cases, but in my mind you can't just extend it to the maximum across the board. We live in "Trail Town USA." There's not a lot of sidewalks, but should we be making stops every third house, within 300 feet? There's got to be a happy medium, but what I get afraid of is that boards are just going to say: "We need to save money, and now you're walking a mile."
MESLIN: So there's a big education piece there - you need to inform people.
LAWRENCE: There's an education piece, and also there's our safety record. Are we going to have kids getting injured because now they're walking?
Michael Shields, director of transportation, Salem-Keizer Public Schools, Salem, Ore.
SHIELDS: There's a focus - Pete and Peter hit it right on the head. We really have to find a link with the student achievement, and the bus drivers have to understand that. In our district, it's "Every Child, Every Day." The safe, efficient transportation is the how. The what is, "Did that kid graduate?" And tying in with Chris, the way they're going to feel that is to feel comfortable on the bus. Another key area is for us to find ways to make that connection. The use of technology - can the bus be a learning environment? Something Chris hasn't shared that he's working on is how to use the technology now - can you do a Wi-Fi so kids can go on the computer and use the learning environment with the iPads and the iPhone?
MESLIN: And we actually had Hall Davidson from the Discovery Channel come and talk to us about that [at NAPT].
SHIELDS: So how can we start incorporating that so that's your homework time? If kids are focused, there's going to be less misbehavior. The school bus could become a learning environment.
Look for the second half of this roundtable discussion in an upcoming issue.