In a district of more than 22,000 students, the South-Western City School District’s transportation department, located in Grove City, Ohio, transports over 14,000 pupils per day. It’s a responsibility that Tim Cox, the district’s transportation supervisor, has taken seriously in his 10-year tenure at the district, especially as the needs of students expand.
For example, Cox says, an increasing number of students in the school district are enrolled in specialized classes or programs. To accommodate their needs, the transportation department developed a shuttle system to take them to their programs.
“We are flexible and able to coordinate our resources to be able to provide [these] services to our students,” Cox says. “We’re committed to providing our students with the support they need to ensure they receive the services they need in a safe way.”
In addition to putting students and their safety at a premium, the district also emphasizes frequent driver training, paying special attention to topics such as crisis prevention and special needs, according to Cox.
Director Driven to Drive
Cox’s journey in pupil transportation began when he was a 21-year-old college student, working on a degree in music education. After realizing that college was not the right fit, he got a job as a school bus driver. He was also working at a hospital and as an assistant band director for the same school district.
“I’d drive a bus Monday through Friday, and on Friday nights I would go into the hospital at 11 p.m. and work until 7:30 a.m.,” he says. “I did that on Fridays and Saturdays. On Sundays, I was pretty much dead.”
Cox realized he could not afford rent solely through part-time work. He committed to working full time at the hospital, where he transported people and bodies, and also worked as a clerk in the emergency room and intensive care unit. However, he still felt the pull of student transportation.
While working as the assistant band director in Pickerington, Ohio, he met a manager from Laidlaw Transit, which provided transportation for the district at the time. Cox was offered a manager-in-training position, eventually leading him to Groveport, Ohio, where he became director of transportation.
“[I] just fell in love with [student transportation] again,” Cox says. “I loved the passion; I loved what I was doing.”
From Groveport, he moved to Reynoldsburg, Ohio, for five years, and eventually took on the position of transportation supervisor for South-Western City School District, southwest of Columbus.
Dedicated to Safety
South-Western City School District puts an emphasis on student safety, Cox says, and works with several local, state, and national organizations to achieve that goal. For example, the transportation department often works with the Ohio Department of Education to ensure staff and drivers are up to date on rules and regulations.
The transportation department has also teamed up with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and local police and fire departments to develop emergency response tools and provide support for school buses running their routes. In 2013, the district, including the transportation department, worked with all local safety and law enforcement agencies to conduct a full-scale bomb threat exercise, teaching staff and students how to identify and minimize the threat of an improvised explosive device (IED) on school property and how to respond safely.
At press time, the transportation department was planning its work with the Ohio State Highway Patrol to create a public service announcement video to highlight the dangers of running red lights and ignoring school bus stop arms, Cox says. During National School Bus Safety Week, state patrol officers followed school buses on their routes and rode on buses to watch for drivers disobeying the law and running stop arms.
“We have a great partnership with our law enforcement agencies,” Cox says. “They support our goal of transporting students to and from school safely.”
Constant Training Support
The transportation department also prioritizes training support for its drivers. The department prepares potential drivers to acquire their commercial driver’s license (CDL) with training and mentorship through onboard instructors, up through their first year as a driver. Even veteran drivers receive regular training sessions and meetings.
“We spend a lot of time in professional development. Every month, we have a safety meeting,” Cox says. “We’re meeting with special ed, we’re talking about individualized education plans, de-escalation, we’re trying to do [Crisis Prevention Institute training].”
The emphasis on training and hiring has been an effort to curb a national shortage of bus drivers, he adds. While the transportation department had enough drivers to cover every route last year, attendance issues would lead to drivers having to double up on trips. Over the past summer, however, the district brought in 25 new substitute drivers, allowing routes to be covered and drivers to be accompanied with extra aides and monitors.
Serving, Connecting With Students
Ultimately, the efforts of the South-Western transportation department funnel toward serving the pupils that it transports. For example, every summer, the department hosts the First Time Riders program, geared toward students in kindergarten. The event is held to get children excited to ride the bus and ease their fears of riding for the first time. They’re taught safety rules and given the chance to ride a bus accompanied by their parents. It also puts parents’ minds at ease to learn about the safety measures that are in place in each bus, Cox says.
For the past three years, each district in the state of Ohio has held a bus safety program. During the first 10 days of school, the South-Western transportation department goes over bus safety and evacuation procedures with each school in the district.
Beyond programs and policies, however, South-Western school bus drivers treat students as if they were family, according to Deborah Mosley, who has driven for the district since 2002.
“We transport children of all cultures, and every family has a different story, but we treat them all alike,” Mosley says. “We treat them as if they would be our own children or our own grandchildren.”
She adds that families often respond in kind, with students enthusiastically greeting her when she runs into them off the clock, and she even gets gifts during the holidays.
The connection that South-Western City School District’s drivers build with students and families can be bittersweet, as children move on after graduating from high school, Mosley says, but she still finds the job rewarding.