Fortunately, the era of referring to “the short bus” or “the special-ed bus” is finally fading.
The pupil transportation profession has made major strides in complying with the intent of the Individuals with Disabilities Act. Students are now more frequently receiving bus service in the least restrictive environment. Many transportation administrators now try to provide service for all students on the same bus where possible and appropriate.These trends are important steps in helping students with special needs achieve independence, a safer school career and a more productive post K-12 life.
In an attempt to foster independence, some of the more progressive districts have established educational standards for transportation-related skills. This educational model works just like any other academic subject. If a particular student has not demonstrated proficiency to the disability-specific standard, then transportation goals can be written into the student’s individualized education program (IEP). Theoretically, the educational staff can then provide remedial instruction to help the student reach the expected level.
For a transportation-related education plan to be effective for students with special needs, it is necessary to create at least one — and possibly several — transitional bus stops. As the student demonstrates “mastery” of essential skills, the transportation department can relocate bus stops in safe locations farther away from the student’s residence. Eventually, with continued success, it is reasonable to expect that a fair share of students will be able to transition to the neighborhood bus stop and receive bus service with their non-disabled peers.
“IEP teams mistakenly reason that student transportation skills are not something that can or should be taught prior to the age of 16 ... In the interim, the students do without the safety and behavior skills that would make them safer school bus riders.”
All of this makes total sense and, indeed, in theory this should describe a commonplace practice throughout the country. However, as Yogi Berra once famously said, “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”
The reality in student transportation today is that very few students with special needs receive bus service other than at the curbside directly in front of their homes. This is the most restrictive service available.
IEP teams mistakenly reason that student transportation skills are not something that can or should be taught prior to the age of 16 (when IDEA requires a transition plan). In fact, many teams recommend that the student learn independent life skills related to transportation in an adult transition program, which usually starts at the age of 18. In the interim, the students do without the safety and behavior skills that would make them safer school bus riders.
Even more troubling is the fact that for many students, it will take years of repetition and practice to fully acquire these skills. By delaying their education, these students are effectively doomed to be less productive and functional adults because they will never fully master these essential skills.
We find ourselves in this position for a variety of reasons. Some will blame special educators, who are either too busy or not knowledgeable enough. Others will argue that these students need to be sheltered and protected, and moving them away from our most restrictive service endangers them. There are many other arguments — all of which might have some merit.
However, it is clear to me that we, as an educational system, have not been fulfilling our obligations to prepare all students for a successful post-secondary life — at least with regard to transportation skills.
We should address this problem by teaching a transportation skills curriculum that:
• is designed for different levels of special education;
• utilizes the knowledge of transportation personnel;
• is taught early and often using the latest educational research on how students learn;
• is taught in the classroom and practiced on the bus;
• enlists the help of special educators by providing them with the materials for follow-up lessons.
At the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services conference in Richmond, Virginia, in November, I will debut a new free program called the “Bus in the Classroom” that meets all of these criteria. You’ll be amazed and surprised by the results.