The Economic Opportunity Foundation's (EOF) Head Start program in Kansas City, Kan., bases its success upon a simple philosophy — putting children first. It's easy for many programs to speak these words, but EOF initiates every employee in the operation by emphasizing above all else the importance of understanding the needs of preschool children.
Says Sam Malone, transportation coordinator, "Our goal is for every EOF Head Start bus driver and monitor to learn and understand the best practices of preschool children programs and to work together as a team."
To attain this goal, EOF has developed a comprehensive driver-training program, which Malone oversees. The success of the program is reflected in the operation's excellent safety record, as well as in the widespread community and parental support the Head Start operation receives. The high regard is well deserved. EOF's pool of 18 CDL-certified school bus drivers has a great deal of responsibility transporting pre-kindergarten children, many of whom have special needs.
Unlike many Head Start programs, EOF's fleet is made up of 17 small buses instead of vans. Despite a small enrollment, the fleet gets plenty of work, transporting 537 students about 100,700 miles in more than 130,000 bus stops per year. A central focus of EOF is that successful Head Start transportation is the end result of a total team effort.
The transportation team
EOF has aptly named its staff the "transportation team," giving each employee an individual role that contributes to the good of the whole program. To demonstrate the delegation of responsibility, the staff of EOF has drawn up a diagram in the shape of a wheel.
The center of the wheel represents the focus of the operation, which is safe Head Start transportation. Each individual wheel spoke is a person with an important responsibility in making the operation work. The spokes include trainers, parents, drivers, teachers and monitors, as well as management. They are aided by disabilities services workers, health services workers and family services workers. The outer layer of the wheel represents the highest authority — the state director of pupil transportation.
A cooperative effort of all parties involved "makes the wheel go round," says Malone. "The absence or underdevelopment of any spoke or team member contribution will result in the services being less efficient or even impossible to provide," he adds.
During employee-training sessions, this cooperative staff effort is explained in depth, and drivers and monitors are instructed on what is expected of them as well as parents, teachers and other members of the wheel. Parents also participate in a training session once a month.
When transporting pre-k and special-needs students, the importance of solid training cannot be underestimated. At EOF, it certainly isn't. Every new driver receives at least 40 hours of training before transporting a single child. In addition, every bus driver and monitor receives eight hours of pre-service training and eight hours of in-service training annually. Moreover, all drivers are screened thoroughly before being hired and must have a valid CDL, a department of transportation physical exam, a driver records check and a criminal background check.
Malone, who administers the driver- and monitor- training programs, says it is important for drivers and monitors to understand that their training is essential to fulfilling the promise of Head Start. "Our vision is to be a leading organization influencing safety, comfort and performance through our people."
A typical bus driver and monitor pre-service or in-service training session goes something like this: From 9:00 a.m. to 10:45 a.m., attendees will hear a presentation from Larry Bluthardt, the state director of pupil transportation in Kansas, on general Head Start issues. Following a break, another presenter will tackle an issue such as the dangers of 15-passenger vans or challenges of special-needs students. More presentations will follow after lunch, culminating with a hands-on demonstration to close out the day at about 4:15 p.m.
Days like this will go on until lesson requirements are fulfilled, using resources such as overhead projectors, flip charts, videos, classroom lectures, parking lot demonstrations and segments inside and outside a school bus.
Says Malone, "At the end of the training, all monitors and drivers will be able to safely load and unload passengers, prevent collisions in a wide variety of environments, know how to handle road emergencies, manage student behavior and understand local, state and federal laws." Drivers operating buses with wheelchair lifts and other special equipment will go through further specialized training.
A portrait of compliance
Another standout trait of EOF Head Start is its undying commitment to compliance with all applicable regulations. Malone lists one of the operation's chief objectives as being able to understand and abide by local policies and procedures, state and federal regulations and guidelines.
Although the first deadline didn't arrive until 2001, Malone says the operation has been in accordance with every requirement of the Head Start Final Rule regulations since 1994, well before they were even announced. The operation uses only school buses to transport students, and the vehicles carry two-way radios, first-aid kits, fire extinguishers, two seat belt cutters and a bodily fluid cleanup kit. Also, each bus is staffed with at least one monitor and will not leave the lot without one onboard.
Furthermore, each bus has a crossing control arm and a backing beeper. One bus is fully equipped for special-needs transportation with a wheelchair lift.
An outsourcing advantage
With a small bus fleet, more flexibility is allowable when it comes to maintenance. For this reason, EOF Head Start outsources all of its school bus maintenance work. Instead of relying on one maintenance department to handle repairs and preventive maintenance, EOF uses a variety of repair services.
"Which vendor gets the business depends entirely on what the problem is with the bus," says Malone. Using multiple repair services enables the operation to find the best expertise for a given maintenance issue. It also allows EOF to shop around for the lowest price.
EOF's school bus fleet is made up entirely of Thomas Built Buses built on Chevrolet or GMC chassis. They are all 10 years old or younger and meticulously maintained. Strict guidelines have been issued for drivers as well, requiring daily pre-trip maintenance checks. This past year, every bus in the fleet passed the Kansas State Department of Education school bus vehicle inspections with a 100 percent rating.
A family resource
Another aspect of EOF that makes it a special operation is the amount of effort put into working with the families of its riders. For example, as part of the transportation team philosophy, parents and their children are provided extensive resources to improve their knowledge about subjects such as pedestrian and occupant safety.
Every parent and child goes through a safety training class, which has a set curriculum and lasts about a week. The training involves emergency evacuation drills, danger zone demonstrations and going over the rules of bus stop and onboard safety. During these sessions, parents are given important facts and statistics about school bus transportation, such as the times and places where injuries of children most often occur.
To further keep its customers and staff informed, EOF Head Start puts out a monthly newsletter filled with safety tips, notices of events and employee recognition. Not only does it serve as a good source of news for families and staff members, it also helps to beef up employee morale because special announcements are made for drivers with exemplary attendance or safety records.
Malone says that the face-to-face interaction between drivers, parents, teachers and other members of the community is strong, facilitated by frequent meetings involving every group. Meetings also help to delineate the responsibilities of parents. For example, they are relied upon to provide the medical histories of their children.
For members of the community, EOF has implemented a full-service child safety restraint system station, offering installation, inspection, loan or rental and free giveaways of child safety seats. Working together with the department of education, EOF has a supply of car seats that are given away or loaned to local parents in an effort to increase child passenger safety both inside and outside the school bus.
The program is run under the expertise of Malone, who is certified as a child passenger safety technician by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). This qualification includes him in listings by the state and NHTSA as a contact for questions about installation and use of restraint systems. Malone has also been a presenter at meetings of the Kansas State Pupil Transportation Association, giving him the opportunity to spread his knowledge and experience to other operations around the state.
Says Malone, "We are more than just a mode of transportation, we're a community resource."