By Jenna Curry, Assistant Editor Katie Scholes of Provider Enterprises, which has transported special-needs children for more than 25 years, proves that sometimes it takes one to know one. That is, it takes the parent of a special-needs child to understand how to run a business that caters specifically to special-needs children.
Scholes founded Provider in 1981 to make up for the lack of pupil transportation for special-needs children in her area.
With 160 buses in its fleet, the company strives to be the “provider” of a safe beginning and end to each child’s school day. “We’ve tried to bring the experience and knowledge of being a parent of a special-ed child to what we do here,” Scholes says.
In the family
When her daughter Jenny, now in her 30s, was diagnosed with severe congenital heart disorder at 18 months old, Scholes and her husband, Bill, realized their daughter would need special speech and language education.
In the early ’80s, there was a lot of new legislation in the federal government for disabled adults and children. “The federal government mandated that institutions housing disabled adults should be closed down, and the adults were being brought back into the community,” Scholes recalls. The government had also mandated that special-needs children be educated.
Jenny was 3 years old when the government started to fund education for children with disabilities. She was enrolled in a speech program about located 45 minutes away from the family’s New Hampshire home. Each day, Scholes would drive Jenny and a few other special-needs children to the school.
After two years of volunteering for the program, Scholes was asked to work for the school district, but she instead decided to form a contract agreement. Without an official business plan and while her husband was working overseas, Scholes started the pupil transportation company in what she refers to as a “very humble beginning.”
Provider has maintained a family mentality even through growth. Scholes serves as the president, and she hired CEO Jim Tyrie in 1999 to help with growth by setting the budget and overseeing fleet replacement and other projection tasks.
Scholes’ son Garrett, one of five children, also works for the company as its operations manager. “It’s nice to see the next generation committed to continuing this tradition,” Scholes says.
Great fleet growth
At its inception, the company operated about 10 buses solely devoted to transporting special-needs children. Provider began growing rapidly after landing its first big contract in 1987, providing all of the special-needs transportation for a New Hampshire district that included about 10 towns.
Today, the New Hampshire-based company operates in 50 school districts, covering a 75-mile radius within the state and in parts of northern Massachusetts and southern Maine.
One of the biggest challenges the company faces is “growing pains.” Provider has steadily increased its business about 17 to 20 percent each year in the past eight years, Scholes says. Though the company remains focused on providing reliable and quality transportation, keeping drivers in queue for future routes is a challenge.
“Certain disabilities are on the rise, and there’s a big trend in our area in bringing [special-needs] kids back into the district,” Scholes says.
Scholes isn’t worried about future growth; she believes school districts will look to Provider for transit support since it’s one of the few companies to offer pupil transportation specifically for special-needs children.
Safety and operations
Provider is recognized in New Hampshire as one of the largest companies to get a 100-percent rating on state-mandated fleet maintenance inspections for four consecutive years.
The company’s 160-vehicle fleet includes seven-passenger vans, nine-passenger turtle vans and yellow school buses, which hold between 14 and 48 passengers. Provider transports about 1,300 special-needs children and 200 vocational students each day, both in rural areas and in cities such as Boston and Portland, Maine.
Provider’s preventive maintenance schedule brings in buses every 4,000 miles and has a 200-point maintenance inspection requirement. Buses are replaced according to the needs of the contract. “We’re always looking five years ahead,” Scholes says.
In order to maintain safety for riders, Provider invested $30,000 in the past six months to replace each bus’ wheelchair tie-down system with updated, state-of-the art restraints.
All buses also have GPS systems. Headquarters can utilize two-way communication with bus drivers through text messaging, and, “We can track and know where the buses are in real time,” Scholes says.
Before implementing the GPS systems, Provider had a substitute driver on a route, and headquarters told the driver that Jimmy D. could tell her exactly where to drop him off at school. After a few minutes of the driver following the child’s directions of “left, right, right,” she realized she was completely lost.
“We came to find out that it was a different Jimmy D. giving her the directions,” Scholes says. “The other Jimmy D. was playing his Game Boy!”
The company learned an important lesson from this experience, and it now profiles all routes before sending the driver out.
Quality drivers are key
One of the keys to Provider’s success is its ability to find quality drivers. The company has an ongoing recruiting and training program in order to avoid falling into crisis when the districts and company experience growth.
Though it may generate additional costs for the company, Provider hires and trains drivers to ride and monitor the bus routes and generally has a pool of qualified drivers when needed. “We hired a great trainer, who is a retired school principal, to interview, train and keep the pipeline full.”
Scholes feels fortunate to be able to train drivers specifically for transporting special-needs children. “We’re not trying to teach 100 drivers how to drive a full-size bus and 10 drivers how to drive special-needs vehicles,” she says.
The comprehensive program begins with a minimum of 30 training hours before driving a route, including classroom sessions and behind-the-wheel training (without passengers).
After the initial training, Provider has drivers attend four out of five state training sessions offered each year. New Hampshire requires pupil transportation drivers to put in eight hours of training each year, but Provider requires 16 hours. The workshops teach topics such as student management and pre-trip inspections and address the state’s developments in pupil transportation.
Scholes is a certified special-education instructor for the New Hampshire School Transportation Association, and she has helped organize more sponsored training for special-education drivers.
Scholes encourages people to be proactive in the industry in order to make a difference. The special-needs transportation industry is small, but still important, she says. “Sometimes you just have to get out there to find out what you can do to bring more knowledge to a group.”
Drivers have a lot of responsibility at Provider. For example, the majority of the fleet buses and vans, excluding the 10 percent kept on reserve, are parked at the drivers’ homes. But with the responsibility, Scholes says, recognition for good work does not go unnoticed.
Provider’s recognition program awards employees for their years of service. After working for the company for five years, drivers get watches, and at the 10-year anniversary, they are presented with Provider jackets.
When Scholes isn’t working on district contracts, she spends time creating and sending birthday cards and thank-you notes to drivers, and planning each year’s summer outing. Last summer, drivers and their families were invited to a picnic at a lake, where they could engage in water sports, win raffle prizes and enjoy a catered meal.
“The drivers are considered customers, but also family. We realize how important they are to us,” Scholes says. Last Thanksgiving, the company provided 180 turkeys to drivers and their families.
Scholes says that while recognition is extremely important, respect has to come along with it. “We’re quick to tell [drivers] that we appreciate them. Our motto is ‘See them do something good and tell them about it,’” she says. “I think people will stay with a company for recognition above and beyond pay.”
New year, new facility
When the company began operating, the offices were housed above the garage in the Scholes family’s New England farmhouse. Radios and phones were on and ringing 24 hours a day. About 15 years ago, Provider moved into a 20-room house and has since used every square foot of space.
In the summer of 2008, the company headquarters will be moving into a new facility in an industrial area. The move is expected to provide much-needed space and leave room for future growth.
Provider may have started out in a “mom and pop shop mentality,” but it has since grown to be a professional resource. “When you start, you don’t know what you don’t know. It’s a learning process,” Scholes says.
The company has built strong relationships with school districts, keeping many of its contracts for 15 to 20 years. Most of the contracts are full-service, and there is some out-of-district work, too.
Provider also acts as a source of knowledge for transporting special-needs children, creating handbooks of policies and procedures for drivers and parents.
Special needs, special riders
Being a parent of a child with special needs, Scholes brings perspective for parents, teachers and everyone else who works with the children on a daily basis.
“Parents aren’t lazy. They live 24/7 with the child with the disability,” Scholes says. “We can help ease our relationship [with parents] through understanding and compassion.”
Whenever she gets the opportunity, Scholes takes a day to ride on a route with the children. She’s found that when the children aren’t afraid and have a good ride, they’re more likely to have a good day as well.
“I think it’s great that we wake up and take on the liability of running a company, but you’re only as good as the people working face-to-face with the parents, students and teachers each day,” Scholes says. “The drivers are our liaison and are on the frontline.”
School buses: 160
Students transported daily:
Districts served: 50
Area of service: 75-mile radius in three states