About 17 nations were represented in the United Arab Emirates in April as Dubai held its first conference aimed at enhancing school transportation.
With the array of recommendations being presented and the inaugural nature of the event, it brought to mind the beginnings of the National Congress on School Transportation (NCST) for those from the U.S.
Being at the Dubai conference had a feeling of “what it was probably like to be at an early Warrensburg conference,” said Alex Robinson, president of the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT), referring to the Missouri town where the NCST gatherings came to be held. “Dubai is coming out with policies and procedures for school transportation, and other emirates are following suit. It was very humbling to be on the ground floor of that.”
The event, billed as the 1st Annual Conference on Shaping Sustainable School Transportation with Policy, Attitude and Action, stemmed from a partnership between the Dubai Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) and NAPT.
The conference, held April 21 to 23, included seven general education sessions with 27 speakers from 11 countries. There were about 280 delegates and 600 visitors, including some high-level dignitaries like the ministers of education from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and Dubai’s chief of police.
There were also four separate training workshops for school bus drivers, school bus supervisors (a variation of what are called bus monitors in the U.S.) and parents, with about 150 people participating.
“I did a driver training for about 65 to 70 current drivers,” Robinson said. “They were all very polite and very by-the-book.”
The trade show brought in 35 local and international exhibitors, including several from the U.S.
Delegates were taken on a citywide tour that explained the various modes of school transportation in Dubai. They also visited a school and its related transportation facility, courtesy of Emirates Transport.
Eager to improve
Speakers and delegates made 11 key recommendations (see sidebar), covering such areas as school transportation safety and security, driver and student training, and standards for transporting special-needs students.
“There was definitely a commitment from the group to move forward with the recommendations,” Robinson said.
NAPT Executive Director Mike Martin said that although the U.S. has a "70- or 80-year head start" in school transportation compared to the Middle East and North Africa, "the gap will shrink quickly, particularly because policymakers there want to put as many kids on buses as possible; they view it as a smart investment."
Martin noted that officials there "have many of the same goals we have here, and the issues are similar, too — student behavior management, for example, is a challenge everywhere."
Some came to the conference to learn the fundamentals of a successful pupil transportation operation. Robinson said that one attendee, a U.K. expatriate who runs a private school in Dubai that doesn't currently offer transportation services, was looking into what it would take to build a school bus program from the ground up.
In addition to Robinson and Martin, speakers from the U.S. included:
• Randy Dorn, Washington state superintendent of public instruction
• Derek Graham, state pupil transportation director for North Carolina
• Murrell Martin, Utah state director
• Pat Snell, director of transportation, Broward County (Fla.) Public Schools
• Judy Shanley, director of student engagement and mobility management, Easter Seals Transportation Group
• Ken Hedgecock, vice president of sales, marketing and service, Thomas Built Buses
• Antonio Civitella, president and CEO, Transfinder
• Tom Mullins, senior account executive, Tyler Technologies
In the opening general session, Robinson gave an overview of the U.S. school bus industry and explained NAPT's goals.
"Regardless of where children go to school, or what language they speak, our primary objective as school transportation professionals is to ensure that every child arrives at school and returns home safely every day," she said.
Martin said later that Robinson has been so committed to that notion for so long that "it gave me goose bumps to watch her live in the moment that we were finally able to bring people from 17 countries together in support of safe and effective school transportation."
Those who attended from the U.S. were able to gain insights from their foreign counterparts — from Dubai and other nations around the world.
Robinson said that she was interested to learn about how managers in Dubai interact with their employees.
"They have such mutual respect — it's not out of fear," she said. "They set down very clear rules. They take criticism very seriously, and they want to fix it the next day."
Another thought-provoking aspect of pupil transportation in Dubai is a school food program that serves breakfast on the school bus.
"Here, we talk about not eating or drinking on the bus, but there they have good [student] performance because kids are eating and drinking on the bus," she said. "It makes you question some of the things that we have said no to."
When Martin first visited Dubai, for conference planning in December, he said he was struck by the high levels of customer service and professionalism.
“They strive to be world-class in everything they do," he said. "They focus on customer service as much as anything there.”
As for future plans for the conference, Martin said in May that NAPT was working with the Dubai RTA "to develop a business plan that will expand our partnership throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa."
Sidebar: 11 key recommendations
Speakers and delegates at the Dubai school transportation conference made the following recommendations:
1. It will be important to continually revise legislation and policy for safety and security in school transportation to reflect changes and new challenges in the marketplace.
2. Identify and make clear roles and responsibilities for stakeholders managing safety and security in and around schools.
3. The government planning authority needs to be involved in preparing legislation and/or policy to limit travel distance to schools and encourage walking.
4. Planning authorities also need to establish clear guiding principles for location and road design layouts around the schools.
5. A continuous periodic program of training and awareness should be created for students, bus operators and parents.
6. Updated standards and specifications are needed for transporting students with special needs.
7. There is a need to invest in technology for school transportation to ensure a safe and secure journey for children. By the same token, it must be remembered that technology is only a tool to implement policies.
8. The value of time should be maximized for students while they are on the bus. There needs to be educational and awareness programs during their travel time.
9. There is a need to build the trust of parents in school transportation through improving equipment and related specifications, performance criteria, training, awareness and overall reliability.
10. In order to minimize bullying cases in schools and on buses, there must be serious efforts among the educational stakeholders to develop preventive legislation, education for students and parents, and improved marketing.
11. Utilize clearly defined safety and security key performance indicators to monitor the performance of school transportation operators.
Photo gallery: Dubai's 1st School Transportation Conference