Photo courtesy St. Lucie Public Schools

Photo courtesy St. Lucie Public Schools

For many districts, a new school year is about to start, and their transportation departments will be tasked with delivering lost kindergartners, confused middle schoolers, and cool high schoolers to their schools in time for first bell.

Meeting that goal is no small feat. However, with planning, practice, and technology, school transportation staff can have a great start to the new school year, and experience the satisfaction of a job well done.

“I’ve been in this business for 34 years,” says Scott Allen, regional operations manager for North America Central School Bus in Joliet, Ill. “I still get excited when I’m at a school and watch the kids get off the buses, meet their teachers, and things go right.”

With planning and preparation, your transportation staff can get high marks even during the back-to-school frenzy.

Below are some tips from school transportation operations across the U.S. to ensure your school year gets off to a great start.

1. Map the Planning Process  

Although back-to-school transportation plans include a number of elements, one of the most important is a review of the previous year, according to Allen; Francine Furby, transportation director for Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools; and Mark Lindstrom, general manager of the school transportation management company TransPar Group, who helps the Hawaii Department of Education (DOE) oversee contractors.

Next, the plan should address routing and look at changes in programming, bell schedules, student population, and roads, Furby says. Because they change frequently, staying on top of new programming and student populations in special education is particularly important, adds Don Carter, transportation director for St. Lucie Public Schools in Port St. Lucie, Fla.

The third factor to consider is driver recruitment and retention, according to Allen, who says it’s almost impossible to have a smooth start to the school year if you don’t have enough personnel.

 Fourth is fleet maintenance, according to Carter. The plan should ensure the district has the buses it needs and that they’re ready to go when school starts, he says.

And last but not least is communication with staff and parents, adds Lindstrom. Communication planning should include methods to stay abreast of programming, get student changes of addresses, inform parents of bus stop information, and address problems parents experienced the previous year.

2. Conduct a Review of Last Year

When implementing his back-to-school plan, Lindstrom first looks at last year’s performance. He gets feedback from staff to learn what they struggled with and what went smoothly.

“You must understand what went right, what went wrong, and why,” Lindstrom says.

3. Make Route Planning a Team Effort

To ensure she has all the programming information she needs for routing, Furby does more than remind school district leaders to keep transportation informed. She works with the school district’s planning office, and her staff are members of its boundary and program development committees.

“Our office gives input when they’re looking at changing programs: the best location for the program, its boundaries, and feeder schools,” she says. “It’s important for us to provide input in the early planning stages.”

Furby also examines student population changes and checks out communities that are experiencing growth, have new buildings, or are undergoing road structure changes to determine bus stop locations and whether her routes meet bus capacity.

Scott Allen of North America Central School Bus says he focuses on driver recruitment as early as possible. One measure he takes is setting up a bus with a banner and a sign-up table in grocery store parking lots. Photo courtesy North America Central School Bus

Scott Allen of North America Central School Bus says he focuses on driver recruitment as early as possible. One measure he takes is setting up a bus with a banner and a sign-up table in grocery store parking lots. Photo courtesy North America Central School Bus

4. Tackle Driver Recruitment Early

Allen hits bus driver recruitment hard, and he hits it early. He attends job fairs; sets up booths in large apartment complexes; works with Goodwill Industries shops and state agencies; advertises in newspapers and on social media; posts flyers in restaurants and stores; and puts a bus with a banner, and if possible, a sign-up table, in grocery store parking lots.

Allen then holds new driver trainings throughout the summer and an in-service right before school starts. The in-service covers subjects such as student discipline and emergency evacuation, and drivers learn to handle their buses on various courses.

Carter’s entire team — drivers, aides, and mechanics — attends his before school in-service. Specialists such as attorneys and special education educators address the team, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security presents active shooter training geared to bus drivers.

5. Get the Fleet Ready to Roll

Although safety is attended to year-round, summer is for general maintenance, Carter says. Each of his technicians is responsible for a list of buses. They ensure the technology works, upholstery is repaired, paint and body work is done, and the buses are clean.

Also, staff must check that new buses meet state requirements and are equipped with the safety features the school district uses, Allen adds.

6. Dry Runs Are Essential

Allen’s drivers conduct dry runs throughout the summer. In addition to helping them learn their routes, dry runs allow drivers to identify safety issues such as new construction, street closings, and two-way streets that have been converted to one-way streets.

“If there’s a new route or a major change to a route, we want to test [it] before we lock it down and give notice to the parents,” Allen says.

Then, Allen’s drivers, like those of Furby, Carter, and Lindstrom, drive their routes a few days before school starts at their scheduled times. This tests the system, and drivers learn traffic flows.

Lindstrom adds a twist to his dry runs: drivers take kindergartners, and sometimes elementary students, as well as their parents to school and back home.

Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools examines student population changes and communities that are experiencing growth or road structure changes to determine bus stop locations and whether routes meet bus capacity. Photo courtesy Fairfax County Public Schools

Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools examines student population changes and communities that are experiencing growth or road structure changes to determine bus stop locations and whether routes meet bus capacity. Photo courtesy Fairfax County Public Schools

7. Get the Word Out

Fairfax County’s Furby gives bus stop information to the schools for distribution and uses text, email, and voicemail to ensure parents know their child’s bus stop, while Carter uses personalized phone calls, open houses, and school websites. Even so, Furby and Carter get a ton of phone calls those first weeks of school, so they bring on additional staff to handle them.

“You can have a terrible start up if a message gets out there, ‘Hey, I called and called and couldn’t get an answer,’” Carter says.

8. Get More Staff Support for the First Weeks

For North America Central’s Allen, it’s “all hands on deck” for the first two weeks of school, especially for large schools or those with a lot of turnover.

“We’ll be out and about at schools to watch the loading and unloading, let drivers know we support them, and let the schools know we’re there as well,” he says. “If there’s a challenge, we’re there to help.”

Carter, too, posts staff at schools those first few days, but he also relies on GPS to alert him when problems occur.

“GPS allows my staff to have eyes in more places,” Carter says.

9. Streamline With Technology Tools

Carter finds that technology can also make the start of school easier. With the app Here Comes the Bus, parents are alerted that the bus is within a certain distance of their child’s stop.

For bus drivers, TransPar’s Lindstrom recommends tablets or mobile data terminals. They send messages, provide routing information, and include a security button for emergencies, a GPS map, and a list of students and their contacts. Carter also gives drivers mobile data terminals, and Furby equips them with a two-way radio system that lets them communicate with dispatch when there’s an emergency.

File photo courtesy Student Transportation Inc.

File photo courtesy Student Transportation Inc.

More Smooth School Start Tips

Here, Gregg Voss, vice president of media relations for TSN Communications, shares top tips from three school transportation leaders for having those first few weeks of school run hassle-free.

Herbert Hill, director of transportation department, Muscogee County (Ga.) School District:
Tip 1: Prepare your personnel. It takes about a month to train bus drivers. Don’t wait until the last minute to hire and train them. (Also, you end up losing 10% to 20% of bus drivers a year, because they find opportunities elsewhere.) We start that process nine to 12 months out. In an area like Atlanta, school districts are competitive. Drivers tend to migrate where the money is. In an isolated place like mine, we tend to grab more from the smaller surrounding counties.
Tip 2: Focus on vehicle inspection. Starting the day after the end of the school year, my technicians prepare for the statewide inspection, making sure we have the buses ready for school. Our inspection is early July, and we start school in the first week of August.
Tip 3: We make sure our people are properly trained and knowledgeable of our route assistance software system; we use Transfinder. We prepare the routes that are most efficient for the drivers to pick up the students. Once students are registered to a school, our routing system picks up a student. That has a 30% to 40% impact on routing.

Augie Vona, president of Total Transportation Corp. in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Tip 1:
Make sure drivers have their training up to date, and that any new training that has to be done for the year is done before the school year starts. We all know who is retiring in June, but we call every driver to make sure we know who’s coming back.
Tip 2:
Starting really happens when the old school year ends. Perform preventive maintenance on every vehicle that needs major work done. Send buses on road tests to see if a transmission is going to go.
Tip 3:
We do two dry runs, using GPS to make sure the driver did it and that they are ready for the first day. The first day is going to run late, with parents taking pictures and such. You have to make sure the new driver is fully trained, and that will take more than one dry run. If there are any problems, such as street closures, we can change that before the start of school.

Rick McBride, director of transportation, Pinellas County Schools in Largo, Fla.
Tip 1:
Make sure your routing is accurate. We use Edulog. It assigns the kids to stops and puts the routes and runs together for us. We would not be able to do it manually with the amount of students, stops, and routes in our district. We start working on it once we get the new school rollover. We get that information in March and work on it until the first part of July. We send out postcards to parents to make sure they know where their stops are.
Tip 2:
Make sure your bus fleet is inspected and they are operable and clean. It sets a good example for the students. We want to give them a good sense of order for the first day of school. The state of Florida mandates an inspection every 30 days, and we do ours every 25 days. If you have any other equipment on the bus, like GPS and cameras, make sure that they are fully functional.
Tip 3:
Communicate to the parents a good number to call for issues, concerns, and further information about their school bus stop. We have a lot of parents who call. Communicate to all your stakeholders: drivers, schools, parents, and law enforcement.