Promoting the Good Work of Your Drivers

Does good news really travel fast?

In other words, are people outside of your operation likely to hear about the good deeds, the discipline and the dedication of your school bus drivers?

Many people — even among those who work for school districts — are not aware of the training, testing and daily challenges that the job entails. And certainly many are oblivious to the superior safety record that drivers and others in the pupil transportation industry have worked to achieve.

But is the public even interested in all of this school bus business?

According to Kimberly Eloe, communications specialist at Dallas County Schools, “Parents increasingly want to be involved in their children’s education — including the transportation element. It’s important to let them know what we’re doing to ensure safety and that the bad things are rarities.”

Bonnie Russell, general manager of transportation at Houston Independent School District, says that good news happens every day in her department, and it should be heard outside of the department as well as inside.

“We want to help the public understand how tough the job of a bus driver is,” Russell says. “This is a very dedicated group of men and women.”

Inform the public
Eloe is charged with creating community awareness of what’s going on with transportation and other services that Dallas County Schools, an intermediary agency, provides the various independent school districts throughout the county.

Terry Penn, executive director of transportation at the agency, and Eloe have developed a strong business relationship and work toward spreading good news.

“Our main avenue is press releases,” Eloe says. “I try to send out one or two a month that highlight the positive things we’re doing.”

One of those positive things involves a driver who has helped tutor her passengers (see sidebar on pg. 30). In this case, a parent contacted Dallas County Schools and asked, “How do you recognize bus drivers?”

Eloe, whose position is in the agency’s public information office, says she encourages the transportation department to let her know what’s going on. She also stays up to date by attending transportation meetings.

For pupil transporters that don’t have access to a public information office, press secretary or other entity of that sort, contacting the press yourself is feasible. Eloe says that the chances of getting a school bus-related story in the paper or on TV are probably better in areas less populous than Dallas, where she has worked to get on good terms with reporters.

“I think that smaller communities tend to have more of a desire for this type of information; they’re more invested in their community,” Eloe says.

Eloe suggests sending out press releases or making calls to media outlets on slower news days. In general, holidays are good bets. Days following major events, such as a Hurricane Katrina, are not.

At Houston Independent School District, the transportation department works with the district’s press secretary. When good news occurs, Russell says she brings it to his attention. He then forwards a summary to his contacts in the media.

Recently, a Houston school bus driver made it into the local news for helping to prevent a 6-year-old passenger from choking to death.

Gwendolyn Hardy, a 27-year veteran driver for the district, took decisive action after the girl swallowed a rubber band and began to choke. After assessing the situation, Hardy called base, which in turn called emergency responders. The youngster was taken to the hospital and made a full recovery.

Hardy was later interviewed by Houston’s KTRK-TV.

“She was in trouble, and I did what I was trained to do,” Hardy told the station. “These are my babies — my bus babies.”

While a story doesn’t necessarily need to involve a lifesaving effort, it helps when there’s a more personal, human element to it. Russell says that her district has sent out media advisories on things like emissions reduction that don’t end up drawing much interest.

Peter Lawrence, director of transportation at Fairport (N.Y.) Central School District, says that he typically works with his district’s public relations department when he wants to get the word out about something. But he has also dealt directly with a reporter at the Perinton-Fairport Post.

“If he has questions about transportation, he feels comfortable calling me, and I can call him as well,” Lawrence says.

Reaching peers
A newsletter can be an effective way to promote your drivers and other aspects of your program to school administrators and teachers. At the same time, it can be an encouragement to the drivers themselves.

Brigden Summers, manager of Laidlaw Education Services’ Stockton, Calif., branch, publishes a bi-monthly newsletter that has traditionally focused on promoting safety. Over time, it has come to include coverage of incentive programs, bus service information and employee anniversaries. There is also a section called “Service Honor Roll,” which showcases compliments from customers. Summers says that parents and teachers often go out of their way to send him letters about their driver.

“What started out 10 years ago as a way to promote safety with my driving force has turned into a very positive public relations tool as well,” Summers says.

In the early days, Summers only received a few of these letters of praise for his drivers each year. But more and more people have found out about the section, and now there are often five “Honor Roll” items in an issue.

In a recent edition, driver Joe Hernandez was commended by the family of one of his passengers for his exceptional service.

“[Hernandez] is an excellent bus driver,” the family wrote. “Kind and also stern, he gets the job done and is always punctual.”

Besides distributing the newsletter within his operation’s ranks, Summers sends copies to contacts at the districts his branch serves.

Russell of Houston Independent School District stresses the importance of taking a proactive approach to educating peers about what your program is doing — to tell your story yourself rather than let someone else tell it.

“We try to send at least one success story each week to the superintendent and other administrators,” Russell says.

Fairport CSD publishes transportation bulletins and a quarterly newsletter, “The Steering Gear,” which cover goals, employee expectations, successes and other areas that the department wants to focus on.

“All of these publications are electronically sent to the ‘top brass’ at our district office and shared with our board members so everyone is aware of our standards and expectations,” Lawrence says.

Through efforts such as these, Lawrence notes, drivers and the transportation department in general have come to be well regarded within the district.

“Our administrators are very supportive, and teachers often talk with the drivers,” Lawrence says. “But years ago, it wasn’t that way. Transportation was always at the bottom of the ladder.”

Honorable mentions
Another way to recognize drivers is to give out awards within your operation or nominate them for outside honors.

At Weber School District in Ogden, Utah, driver Larry Crouch won the Employee of the Month in Education award, which is sponsored by Costco and is open to all employees in the 42-school district. In this case, Crouch was nominated by the family of a girl who had been scared to get on the bus and to go to school.

“Larry stepped off of the bus, asked her what was wrong and talked to her a bit,” says Monty Hadley, transportation specialist for the district. “When they got to school, he took her to class.”

Besides Crouch’s caring way with children, Hadley notes his professional appearance. “He always wears a shirt and tie when he drives the bus,” Hadley says. “He also works for the Chamber of Commerce.”

At Independent School District 196 in Rosemount, Minn., the transportation department honors all its employees with a “Survivor Banquet” at the end of each school year. The event is a potluck that includes the grilling of hot dogs, hamburgers and bratwursts. The focus is on rewarding employees, and at least one very important figure from outside the transportation department participates.

“We invite the superintendent, and he presents years-of-service awards,” says Transportation Supervisor Donna Zelinsky.

In New York, the Rochester Area Transportation Supervisors Association holds an annual Employee of the Year celebration to honor outstanding pupil transporters. Districts can submit one nomination for each 100 transportation employees.

The nominees are invited to an event in which they have breakfast with transportation office staff and superintendents from the participating districts. The association publicizes the program by sending out a press release to news outlets in the area.

Reaching out
Of course, drivers can and do make their own impressions in the community in the way they handle their duties. A smile and greeting from the driver’s seat certainly go a long way. But the good work of school bus drivers isn’t limited to the bus.

At Cecil County Public Schools in Elkton, Md., drivers are encouraged to join an elementary school mentoring program.

“They’re looking for somebody to come once a week and spend half an hour with a student — playing chess, reading books, just being a positive adult role model,” says Bob Markwardt, supervisor of transportation. About a dozen of the district’s drivers have committed to the program.

At Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. in Columbus, Ind., the transportation department participates in the county fair, which takes place about three weeks before school starts. The county gives the operation space to park a bus and pitch a yellow and black tent.

Drivers donate time to man the tent and pass out fliers and coloring books on safety. Children and parents are encouraged to explore the bus.

“This has been a real positive, especially for kindergarten kids who have never been on a bus,” says Transportation Manager Monica Coburn. “And it lets parents see how committed and caring the drivers are.”

Bus becomes place of learning

The following article was written by Kimberly Eloe, communications specialist at Dallas County Schools, to promote the good deeds of one of the agency’s drivers.

Brenetta Joseph is not an ordinary bus driver for Dallas County Schools.

Daily, Ms. Joseph, whose friends call her “Sam,” goes out of her way to motivate and encourage students to discover their potential to achieve academically. In an effort to “bridge the gap” between a student’s learning experiences at school and home, Joseph started tutoring the students on her K-4 overflow route in DeSoto.

“I’d like to think that if my son was having trouble in school, somebody would take time to help us,” Joseph says. “Teachers and parents have so much going on that it can be difficult to provide one-on-one academic attention to struggling students.”

Anne Marie St. John, parent of two students from Joseph’s bus, says that Joseph visits weekly with her students’ teachers to get their spelling lists.

“I have a student who is in foster care and another from New Orleans,” St. John says. “Both are struggling academically, and Ms. Joseph gets their spelling lists each day and helps them learn their words on the way to and from school.”

Joseph, a former Beaumount firefighter, says that she likes to get off the bus and look at the students’ classroom projects and accomplishments.

“I work with all of my students,” she says. “If they’re doing poorly in school, they will have low self-esteem that carries into the rest of their lives.” Positive peer pressure is one of the methods Joseph uses to encourage her students to study on the bus. Pairing academically struggling students with students who are doing well in school allows Joseph to concentrate on driving.

“The students want to be involved with the activity going on during the trips to and from school, and that involves studying on my bus,” she says.

Terry Penn, executive director of transportation at Dallas County Schools, says that Ms. Joseph has demonstrated her dedication and compassion for the students she sees on her bus by going above and beyond the job description of a bus driver.

“Ms. Joseph drives a school bus for Dallas County Schools because she cares about her students,” Penn said. “I applaud her dedication and deep concern for the academic success of the students she transports.”

After Joseph tutored St. John’s students on their spelling words, both showed improvement on their weekly test.

“This week, both of them passed,” St. John says. “One got 100 percent.”

Following the positive affirmation from so many parents, DeSoto Independent School District recently hired Joseph as a substitute teacher. Joseph, who is just seven credit hours short of a college degree, says that she is looking forward to having more time to work with students.

“Working with students does my heart good,” she says. “I learn from them daily.”

Related Topics: driver recruitment/retention, morale, public image

Thomas McMahon Executive Editor
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