Consistency is critical for special-needs students, and the transportation and special-education departments at Community Unit School District (CUSD) 300 are working together to provide a consistent experience from the school bus to the classroom.
The partnership at the Algonquin, Illinois-based district has helped decrease student misbehavior on buses, and it has strengthened training for drivers and aides, better preparing them to handle the challenges that can arise on a special-needs bus.
“My department works very closely with our special-education department,” says Donna Bordsen, director of transportation for CUSD 300. “They provide four hours of training with drivers and aides at the start of the school year and are available as needed.”
CUSD 300’s special-education department is formally known as education services. As director of that department, Susan Rohlwing has worked to keep transportation in the loop with pertinent information and instruction.
“The training with bus drivers started after we started training with building staff and classroom staff, because we wanted that consistency,” Rohlwing says. “We wanted to have the same terminology being used and a lot of the same methods. If kids hear it on the bus, it helps with the support and recognition of those strategies.”
CUSD 300 covers an urban and rural area of 119 square miles in northeast Illinois, about 45 miles outside of Chicago.
The district contracts out its transportation to Durham School Services, which runs about 195 buses for CUSD 300. More than 16,000 of the school bus passengers are in general education, and about 1,300 are special-education students. The smaller busloads, the inclusion of aides, and the longer distances that some students travel to specialized programs means that costs are much higher for the special-needs bus service.
“It costs just as much money to transport the [1,300] special-ed kids as the [16,000] gen-ed kids,” Bordsen says.
The special-needs routes can also be more demanding for school bus drivers and aides, which is why CUSD 300 has stepped up training efforts — even if that increases expenses.
“It’s not a question of money,” Bordsen says. “We don’t put money before safety.”
As part of CUSD 300’s contract with Durham, the district gets four hours of training time per year with the contractor’s school bus drivers and aides, with the district identifying the topics to be covered.
“We choose what that looks like,” Bordsen says, adding that the district is “not limited to those four hours. They have driver and aide meetings once a month, and I can ask to be put on the agenda.”
Two training programs that CUSD 300 uses target student behavior: Love and Logic and CPI (Crisis Prevention Institute). Rohlwing says that both programs educate staff members on how to de-escalate behavioral issues, such as what a driver or aide should do if a student grabs them or has an outburst of anxiety. Also, Steve Mays, a trainer and behavior specialist for Durham, works with the bus personnel on behavior management.
In training sessions, Rohlwing and Bordsen also make use of real-life situations, whether it’s letting drivers share their experiences or having them review an incident that was captured on bus surveillance video.
One example of the latter was a situation in which a student brought a knife onto a bus. Bordsen says that discussing incidents like this in a training setting helps prepare transportation staff to respond in real life.
There has also been crossover between the bus and the classroom to foster learning and increase consistency.
“For one route, I asked for [a classroom] aide to ride the bus two days a week for the month of January to teach drivers the skills they use in the classroom,” Bordsen says.
In the same vein, school bus drivers and aides have visited a special-education classroom to observe the techniques that teachers use.
“I would like to see more of that happen,” Bordsen says.
Portable training pallets
One of the training tools at CUSD 300 makes use of wooden pallets. A district trainer, Michael Weatherspoon, set up two of these pallets as mobile training stations for safety restraints.
One pallet has an attached school bus seat with a safety harness and a SafeGuard STAR five-point restraint system. The other pallet has a wheelchair with securement equipment. The idea is to provide more space for instructing transportation personnel on proper securement.
“[The trainer] uses that with our drivers so they’re not huddled around a tight space in the school bus,” Bordsen says.
CUSD 300 also took the pallet idea to the Kane County Regional Office of Education and trained trainers from other area school districts on how to use it.
The Kane County Regional Office of Education has facilitated other collaboration among transportation directors in the county. The office sets up a venue for the directors to meet once a month, discussing best practices, challenges, and new developments. The countywide collaboration has also led to the development of a training guide for school bus attendants, as shown in the sidebar above.
Another CUSD 300 initiative that has enhanced the school bus environment for special-needs students is the introduction of sensory kits, an idea that Rohlwing and Bordsen pitched to district leadership.
Each of the kits contains eight or nine items (see sidebar below) that the bus aide can hand out to students to help keep them calm. This is particularly beneficial for special-needs students who are transported long distances to specialized programs.
“We’ve seen our referrals on longer drives go down [due to] having those kits on the buses,” Rohlwing says. “It’s amazing how a sensory item can be soothing for a student.”
All of the items in the kit are soft to prevent any projectile damage, and they are low cost in case a student wants to take a sensory item off of the bus and it has to be replaced.
In some cases, behavioral issues can require stronger measures. For instance, CUSD 300 bought a decommissioned police squad car to use as needed for transporting aggressive students. The aide sits up front with the driver, separated from the back seat by the screen, and the student can’t open the doors from the inside.
Bordsen notes that before resorting to the use of the squad car, the district would offer to reimburse the parents to drive their child, but they typically don’t have the means to do so.
“For one route, I asked for [a classroom] aide to ride the bus two days a week for the month of January to teach drivers the skills they use in the classroom.”
Donna Bordsen, director of transportation, CUSD 300
As another facet of the partnership between CUSD 300’s transportation and special-education departments, Bordsen is included in the monthly meetings of Rohlwing’s team of administrators. That gives Bordsen opportunities to share concerns and ask questions, as well as to inform the special-education team on transportation matters.
“Her trainers brought in that [restraint training] seat so my administrators could see what a STAR seat looks like, so they have a clear understanding,” Rohlwing says.
Adds Bordsen: “The special-ed supervisors determine accommodations on a bus, but they don’t necessarily know what those accommodations look like, so we’re bringing that to them.”
In a similarly collaborative effort, special-education personnel use tape measures to ensure that students who need safety harnesses on the bus get the right fit.
“They measure the child’s waist while sitting so we get the right size,” Bordsen says. “So we’re doing better with those kinds of communications.”
Rohlwing also points to the importance of open communication between departments. In some cases, school bus drivers and aides need more information about a student’s needs. The goal is to give them an “understanding of why a student might act a certain way or need a certain restraint on the bus,” Rohlwing says. This provides a more supportive working environment for the school bus personnel.
“We are seeing things change,” Bordsen adds. “We feel good about the things we’ve done.”
Bordsen’s dedication to supporting special-needs students is personal as well as professional: Her son, now an adult, has multiple disabilities.
This school year, Bordsen has become even closer, in a literal sense, to Rohlwing’s education services department: The director of transportation is now housed in the same office.
“Being in the special-ed department has been a great help,” Bordsen says. “They can come directly to me, or I can go right to them. … You need to have a really intimate relationship with them.”
Adds Rohlwing: “Anytime you’re working with students — it doesn’t have to be a student with an IEP — the more communication you have, the better things run.”