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January 08, 2013  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

A day in the life of a transportation director

At Shelby County Schools, enhanced driver training and partnerships with school staff have led to drastic improvements in student behavior on the bus. Here, we spend a day with Director of Transportation Debbie Rike to see how she steers the operation toward success.

by Thomas McMahon - Also by this author


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At Shadowlawn Middle School, the staff holds an appreciation event with food, goodie bags and T-shirts for the bus drivers
<p>At Shadowlawn Middle School, the staff holds an appreciation event with food, goodie bags and T-shirts for the bus drivers</p>

1 p.m.: Improving bus behavior
Rike drives in her district car to Shadowlawn Middle School in Bartlett, where the staff is holding an appreciation event with food, goodie bags and T-shirts for the drivers as part of School Bus Safety Week.

The gesture is particularly meaningful considering that Shadowlawn “used to be a school that drivers begged to leave” because of rampant student behavior problems, says Beasley, who is in attendance at the event. But she says that a new administration, including Principal John McDonald, turned the situation around.

“They let parents know that they would follow through and students [who misbehave] would be off the bus,” Beasley says.

McDonald is modest about the improvements and gives credit to the “good people around me,” including Cam Alexander, the school’s assistant principal and transportation coordinator.

“We take bus discipline very seriously,” says McDonald, who has also served as a transportation coordinator at another school in the past. “We don’t want students to feel like there’s a different set of expectations on the bus — it’s an extension of the school. ... The bus culture affects the school culture.”

Rike holds a quick meeting with McDonald to go over some route changes.

2 p.m.: On the road again
On the way back to the transportation office, Rike speaks proudly of the staff at her operation, which she has dubbed “The Elite Fleet.”

A prime example is Lula Curry, a special-needs route driver who has been with the district for 35 years and has missed “maybe three days total,” Rike says.

“You could set your watch by her — she’s that precise. One day, her bus broke down. Every parent on her route called, not to complain, but because they were worried about her.”

Curry mops her bus every day, and, according to Rike, state inspectors have said that she has the cleanest bus in Tennessee.

Curry is also known to bring in cold bottles of water or food to hand out.

“I know that’s amazing, but I could probably tell you that about 15 to 20 other people,” Rike says. “One driver had a kid who fell into mud. … She went and bought her clothes. Truly amazing people.”

Rike then shares one of her philosophies in driver management and retention.

“If we can get them through the first year or two, we’ll have them for life. We have to support them through the difficulties in the beginning.”

Rike and Mike Simpson, chief of operations for Shelby County Schools, meet over the phone with Larry Riggsbee, executive director of the Tennessee Association of Pupil Transportation.
<p>Rike and Mike Simpson, chief of operations for Shelby County Schools, meet over the phone with Larry Riggsbee, executive director of the Tennessee Association of Pupil Transportation.</p>

2:30 p.m.: Meeting with the chief
Rike goes to a meeting next door at the office of her boss, Mike Simpson, the chief of operations for Shelby County Schools. Before moving into that position, Simpson was the director of transportation for the district for about 19 years. With the exception of maybe one person, he hired everyone who currently works in the main transportation office.

When asked about his transition to the operations role, Simpson says that “the learning curve was pretty steep” considering the variety of areas he began overseeing in addition to transportation: facility maintenance, capital projects, technology support, risk management, school zones.

“Having the good people sitting there next door [in the transportation office] allowed me to learn these other parts of the business,” Simpson says. “I’m very fortunate.”

Today, Simpson and Rike are meeting over the phone with Larry Riggsbee, the executive director of the Tennessee Association of Pupil Transportation. They discuss the agenda for an upcoming board meeting, the possibility of electing an association secretary and educational topics for a regional conference.
 

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