North Monterey County Unified School District in Moss Landing, Calif., transports approximately 2,500 students between home and school daily. Of these, 500, or one-fifth, are students with special needs. The majority of these children are integrated onto about 20 regular routes, while four Type A school buses take care of the remainder — mostly students with wheelchairs or severe disabilities. Transporting such a large population of special-education students, it’s imperative for the transportation department to excel in many areas, including safety, maintenance, training and communication.
It starts with people
Of the 36 staff positions, there are 22 full-time school bus drivers and six substitute drivers, two state-certified driving instructors, two dispatch-secretaries and four maintenance workers. Employee morale is high, and training opportunities are abundant. Through annual evaluations, occasional ride-along observations and ongoing training, drivers are constantly honing their skills. The district has achieved a high success rate with driver applicant and renewal testing with the California Highway Patrol (CHP).
In-depth driver training includes sessions on specialized pupil management, blood borne pathogen handling, understanding of diabetes and seizures, First Aid and confidentiality of medical records and other important information for special-needs students. It also encompasses proficiency testing in 14 different types of vehicles.
"Every driver is trained in every type of bus we operate," says Lisa Griffiths, director of transportation. "If we have a driver out, we cover that route with a substitute driver who is capable of operating that bus and all applicable equipment such as wheelchair tie downs and harnesses."
Preparing the students
Another big part of ensuring the operation’s success and safety is having a strong student-training system. Special-education teachers invite their school bus driving counterparts to the classrooms to present bus riding safety information to the students. Presentations incorporate role-playing games that demonstrate appropriate and inappropriate bus-riding behaviors. Additionally, some district teachers incorporate bus safety into their curriculum and have their classes participate in the annual California Association of School Transportation Officials school bus poster contest. A student at North Monterey County has made the winning regional poster for the past two years, and one child won first place in the special-education division at the state level last year.
North Monterey County also has a bus ticket incentive program to help special-needs children follow school bus rules. If students behave on each of their rides, they get what is called a bus ticket. The transportation department works in conjunction with the schools and the school pathologist to set up an award system. They have a store, and students can spend their bus tickets on toys and gifts. Drivers use the bus tickets as a reminder to students to behave, and the program works as an incentive. The district gives special-education children plenty of short-term goals to work with, says Griffiths.
The student training and bus ticket programs reflect the close-knit relationship among special-education drivers and students. "We are definitely here for the children and that’s the mission statement," says Griffiths. "My special-needs drivers are very involved in the children’s lives. They know the parents, they have cell phone numbers and, if there are any behavior problems or issues, they contact students' parents directly."
Emphasis on vehicle upkeep
The maintenance staff consists of two journey-level mechanics, a serviceman who performs routine vehicle inspections and a service helper who washes and fuels buses, makes small repairs and assists the other shop workers. With this team, North Monterey County has not received a less than satisfactory inspection grade from the CHP. That was not always the case, however. According to Griffiths, the fleet maintenance team has worked hard to upgrade the condition of both the shop and the buses after coming close to being shut down several years ago.
"Our maintenance team is talented and works hard to ensure that the buses are safe and compliant," says Griffiths. "Prior to my joining the district, this new vehicle maintenance team was hired and they have continually worked together to improve fleet maintenance and to ensure that our buses meet the highest standards of safety and economic operation."
The shop staff is held in high regard by the community, too, as it provides maintenance for the Monterey County Fire Department and vehicles in several neighboring school districts. Moreover, the maintenance and driving staffs constantly interact, both on a professional and personal level, as both participate in department activities such as ongoing training and department celebrations. The district also occasionally holds a team building in-service, where maintenance workers and others have the chance to interact and collaborate on important issues.
Possibly more so than anything else, the success of the maintenance team is evident in the fact that North Monterey County school buses traveled 530,000 miles last year without an accident, operating on what Griffiths calls "some of the most problematic highway infrastructure in the state." It is common for buses to have to deal with delays, detours and traffic jams while the state continues road improvement projects in the area.
Cognizant of budget woes
With today’s nationwide school district budget crunch, school transportation operations must do everything possible to find ways to transport students safely at an inexpensive price. North Monterey County has done much to raise funds and save money. Drivers have three separate morning and afternoon routes daily, and school bell schedules are set to allow everything to go smoothly. Midday runs for kindergarten, field trips and special-education classes also occur throughout the day. The driver staff’s duties are streamlined to allow maximum productivity at the best cost.
Additionally, last year the district received a grant from the Monterey Bay Area Pollution Control District, allowing for the purchase of two ultra low sulfur diesel-fueled school buses. North Monterey County then decided that the low-sulfur fuel should be used for the entire fleet. It is in the process of making this change at present.
North Monterey County also offsets costs by increasing income through the following efforts:
Focus on special needs
North Monterey County’s transportation department is actively involved in IEP meetings. Right now, Griffiths is working with the special-education director to put together a training program for IEP teams so that transportation and education are on the same page. The school district is intent on giving children with special needs the least restrictive environment possible. For this reason, only a small percentage of North Monterey County’s special-needs students are not integrated on regular routes.
The special education department is so involved in transportation that they have provided personnel training, giving background information on what the law requires and the rights of parents and children. Griffiths notes that the special needs director is really good about including transportation in the IEP process. "So we try to accommodate as needed but not interfere when we are not needed."
The biggest key to good special-needs transportation, Griffiths says, is the pupil management skills and excellent attendance records of the district’s drivers, affording students with a consistent environment and enhancing the educational experience. The ability to ensure that special-needs students interface with the same drivers every school day allows for the opportunity to form relationships, building trust and a sense of security during the students' ride to and from school.
"I am very proud of the level of service that we provide to all of our students," says Griffiths. "Special Education requires very special drivers, and our special needs drivers are some of the most compassionate, patient and understanding employees I have had the pleasure of working with."