For two important reasons, school bus managers shouldn’t shy away from surveying parents about the quality of transportation service. First, the results can be used to improve the operation. Second, the survey has public relations value: Even if the results suggest that the operation is safe, timely and efficient, parents will appreciate the fact that someone sought their opinion. Before we discuss the nuts and bolts of putting together and disseminating a parent survey, let’s look at how and why some school bus operators have integrated parent surveys into their programs.
Feedback is essential
In Burbank, Ill., AERO Special Education Cooperative, which provides transportation for 12 school districts, has been surveying parents for 26 years. The survey was initiated to gain feedback regarding the bus service provided to special-needs students. “It’s done for a purpose,” says Tom Bever, AERO’s assistant director. “If there are problems, we want to be sure they don’t go unnoticed.” The questionnaire is mailed to 250 parents and includes questions on bus timeliness, driver courtesy and student safety. The results are shared with RichLee Vans Inc., which contracts for transportation service. “It’s very important to involve the parents,” Bever says, adding that an annual survey is optimal. “Just as soon as you stop doing this, someone would say you didn’t ask for our input.” AERO also surveys its principals for their observations on bus driver promptness and communication with teachers.
Stay ahead of the curve
Meanwhile, 100 parents of students in Polk County, Fla., will open their mailboxes this fall and discover that their local school board is interested in their opinion of its transportation service. In launching its first parent survey, Polk County School District has hopes of identifying pertinent goals for the coming school year. “When we develop our goals for the 1999-2000 school year, they will be based on real needs,” says Assistant Superintendent Fred Murphy, who oversees the district’s transportation program The district also mailed a questionnaire to 100 students and all 115 principals. “It’s a small sample, but I don’t want to have such a monumental sample base that we don’t have the time to adequately analyze the data,” Murphy explains. The district transports more than 43,000 students. Responding to survey results is critical, Murphy says. “We might think we know what our weaknesses are, but we will learn more from the ones we serve,” he explains. “We want goals that are measurable, and that’s why we are doing the surveys. Let’s make sure at the end of 12 months we can say we achieved those goals.”
Keys to a good survey
Now for the hard part — creating a questionnaire that is simple, direct and yields good information. AERO’s Bever says the key is to make it easy for the parent to fill out and return. “If you make it too long, you’re not going to get it back. If you make it too wordy, you’re not going to get it back,” he says. “We tried to keep it short and simple and to the point.” AERO’s survey includes eight questions and is mailed with a cover letter signed by its director and by RichLee’s general manager. A self-addressed, stamped envelope is mailed with the questionnaire. For the 1997-98 school year, the survey included the following Yes/No questions.
How to write a survey
Each survey question should be carefully considered, says Dee Allsop, a survey specialist for Wirthlin Worldwide in Salt Lake City. He offers the following tips: The first question or two should be global to get the respondent thinking of the issue. Many surveys start with a general question on how the respondent feels about the issue. Example: How satisfied are you with school bus transportation for your children? That gives you top-of-mind reaction of how they like or don’t like the school bus experience. A typical follow-up question would be to identify one or two reasons why the respondent is or is not satisfied. After that, include the different dimensions of riding the bus that are important. Example: Is it on time? Is the bus driver courteous? Is there order on the bus? Ask them to evaluate each with responses that reflect Often, Sometimes, Rarely and Not at All. Ask between eight and 10 questions. For a survey of this nature, it should take the respondent less than 10 minutes to complete. Include a cover letter or, at the start of the survey, include a few paragraphs that identify why a response matters. Signatures by those responsible for the study should be included. The respondent should have the option of remaining anonymous. Keep the survey to a single sheet of paper, either front only or front and back. Include a deadline only if it is important to your results. Tip: If you assign a deadline too far into the future, people don’t respond. Include an “in or around by” date so respondents don’t look at it as a hard and fast deadline. The last question should be open-ended to allow them to make a comment. Example: If there is one change to improve the school bus experience for your children, what would it be? Include a stamped reply envelope to improve the number of responses. Adding a telephone number is a logistical decision. You need someone to take the call, to respond in a timely basis and be courteous and professional. Be prepared for that person to receive questions unrelated to the survey.
Publish the results?
Think about what you are going to do with the results. Mention in the opening statement that the results will be shared or publicized and that will improve participation. If the results will be published in a school newsletter, tell them in which issue to expect the article. Finally, if you do publish the results, be prepared to act on them. For this reason, you might want to consult with school administrators before publishing the results. A majority of parents may indicate unreasonable expectations, such as door-to-door service, that cannot possibly be acted upon.
Author Andria Segedy is a freelance writer based in Lima, Ohio.