In a rapidly changing nation, where students hail from a multitude of foreign cultures, speaking only one language in schools and on the school bus is not always enough to ensure clear and effective communication. For this reason, many school districts have begun implementing programs, both for students and staff, to teach foreign languages and emphasize tolerance of ethnic diversity. Such programs, especially in regards to school transportation, ease interactions between staff and students and help simplify the teaching of best safety practices.

The great language debate
Unfortunately, the idea of actively teaching foreign languages to school transportation staff is not a cut and dry issue. While proponents cite the potential benefits in safety and equality, detractors argue that investing in such programs does not make a whole lot of sense, logically or fiscally.

For example, Ruth McGrath, transportation director for Dunklin R-5 School District in Herculaneum, Mo., says that communication is essential in any line of work, especially in school bus transportation. "There can and will be problems if a driver is unable to communicate with the students, so I feel some form of training for drivers would be necessary," she says.

But, according to Joe Reed, assistant transportation director for the School District of Palm Beach County (Fla.), in areas of high diversity this would require drivers to learn multiple languages. "In South Florida, we would need to teach Spanish, Creole, French and Hindu, in addition to English and probably several others," he says. "Leaving anyone out risks offending someone."

Of course, this same problem hasn’t stopped school districts from offering foreign language courses and incentives to teachers. Says Barry Brooks, supervisor of purchasing and transportation for Minot (N.D.) Public Schools, "Training bus drivers is no different than providing additional pay to teachers to receive professional training to accommodate non-English speakers in the classroom."

Still, the issue of cost is the biggest concern. "In Oregon, it already costs $2,500 per student for ESL (English as a Second Language) classes; there’s no need to add the additional costs of training drivers," says Ken Wells, a school bus equipment inventor in Milwaukie, Ore.

In multilingual California, state legislators are considering an education reform plan that includes a mandate to make foreign language training figure more strongly in state academic standards. However, according to a recent article in the Sacramento Bee, critics cite the strain such a program would put on the state’s projected $30 billion budget shortfall. Yet, just the fact that such a plan has been introduced on a large stage indicates that the foreign language debate will be an issue for years to come.

Use what’s already there
School districts use a wide range of programs to offer foreign language assistance to their employees. Many of these are quite informal and enacted by transportation supervisors and managers, while others are district-wide moves.

Dodge City (Kan.) Unified School District has a division called the classified development committee, which encourages employees to take continuing education courses. Katie Sholander-Ruthi, transportation supervisor, says that the committee defines continuing education as college hours, workshops or helpful instruction that can assist an employee in his or her job performance. "The district really encourages our drivers to take foreign language classes by giving scholarship opportunities for these courses." And, when drivers finish the courses, they can fill out the proper documentation and be eligible for promotions, she says.

School districts all over the country have similar, incentive-based programs to invite bus drivers and other district employees to enhance their professional skills by taking additional courses. One such example is the Douglas County (Colo.) School District, which offers staff development training in the form of skill blocks, each having a specific financial bonus attached to its completion. New York City Public Schools has an incentive programs department that gives out scholarships and financial stipends for the study of subjects that will help employees perform a certain job function. District human resources departments are the first place to check for such programs.

Improvise and innovate
Programs to enhance driver ability in foreign language and culture do not have to be large and expensive productions. Often one director or supervisor’s creative idea can go a long way.

For example, at Carthage (Texas) Independent School District (CISD), a yearly influx of Spanish-speaking children makes training in foreign language a virtual necessity. Suzan Atkins, route coordinator and trainer, says the transportation department made some suggestions to spice up driver training. “In our past two summer workshops, we went and recruited the junior high school Spanish teacher to come and provide our drivers with a survival Spanish course." The course doesn’t teach them immediate fluency, she says, but it will give them some knowledge of frequently used phrases.

At Jefferson County School District in Birmingham, Ala., the transportation department organized an in-house foreign language class designed specifically for school bus drivers. Sue Parker, a school bus driver who took the class, says the purpose was not just to learn some simple words in another language but to also learn about other cultures. "By learning a little about them and a few words in their language, we encourage them to learn more and more about English," she says.

Sometimes, receiving extra training just comes down to an individual employee’s desire to pursue personal development. Districts are often open to providing reimbursements for language courses taken off-site as well as compensation for courses taken by employees independent of any school district program. Community colleges frequently have vocational training courses aimed at working professionals, and many have special agreements with local schools to provide discounts. In the case of anyone needing help with their English-speaking skills, colleges, churches and community centers almost always provide ESL courses free of charge.

Find the right personnel
Following the old adage, "If you can't beat them, join them," is a good way to improve foreign language communication on the school bus. More specifically, if you can’t implement a program to train drivers and staff how to communicate with students on the school bus, find people who already know the foreign languages to work for you.

Valley Transportation Corp. in Woonsocket, R.I., meets the need to service a growing non-English speaking student population by having a recruitment campaign each summer to attract drivers and monitors directly from foreign-speaking communities. Says Gene Chevrette, school transportation manager, "They have an immediate positive impact on our operation."

Other examples of targeted hiring practices include finding on-the-bus interpreters and bilingual office staff and dispatchers. Says Wells of Milwaukie, Ore., "Rather than teaching multiple people a foreign language, if you have a large number of students in one area who don’t speak English, it makes more sense to hire one person from that culture who speaks English to handle translation duties."

There are many other resources available to accommodate non-English speakers. For instance, Capistrano (Calif.) Unified School District employs bilingual community services liaisons to handle a variety of duties associated with parent education and student support services using English and a designated other language. Los Angeles Unified School District has a central office set up to handle parent and student complaints, including questions about transportation. The office has more than 200 telephone operators that collectively speak English, Armenian, Russian, Chinese, Korean and Spanish.

Create alternatives
Training employees to speak and understand another language and culture eases the communication controversy only so much. Implementing other strategies that directly aid foreign students, while immersing drivers and staff in the learning process, can further ameliorate the effort. Fort Worth (Texas) Independent School District started a pre-k and kindergarten pilot project aimed at the district’s rapidly growing Latino community. The project involves labeling buses with a particular animal to make it easier for students to identify their bus. It also acclimates students to American schools with the help of bilingual monitors and a strict roll call process, allowing students to be tracked and assisted if necessary.

Shelby Pagel, training clerk for the district, says the program is well-organized and very popular with the parents. "It prepares kids for first grade on the typical American school day," she says.

Dodge City Public Schools also runs a program directed at non-English speakers. "We have a training bus that we take out to the schools and perform a program with a safety video. Then we bring students out to the bus and show them the danger zones and how to cross the street, enter and exit the bus," says Sholander-Ruthi. “We have a bilingual instructor in charge of every one of these sessions."

Posting safety signs and posters on the bus in more than one language and printing informational materials in multiple languages may help, too. "When we provide written information at the beginning of the school year, we provide English and Spanish booklets for parents," says Neal Abramson, transportation director for Santa Monica-Malibu (Calif.) Unified School District. Additionally, Atkins of CISD recommends handing drivers laminated lists of phrases to use when interacting with children or parents. “The list includes phrases such as 'What is your name?' and 'Sit down,'" she says.

Teach yourself
Ultimately, when it comes to bus safety, it is a school bus driver’s responsibility to make sure students on the bus can understand and obey important directives.

Efrain Brizuela, a school bus driver in Kaneohe, Hawaii, says that communication with all students is of utmost importance in case there is an emergency and the driver needs to maintain control of the situation. "As a responsible driver, I would make a reasonable effort to learn some basic, often-used phrases, using a cheat sheet as required." A lot of times, he says, it is up to the driver himself to make the decision about whether or not it is worth it to learn another language.

Fortunately, there are several options to pursue for drivers who take the initiative to learn a foreign language. Bookstores and libraries have countless self-help books aimed at teaching readers without the aid of an actual course. In addition, the Internet has an abundance of Websites with information on languages, study guides, vocabulary lists, translation dictionaries and advice on foreign culture. Finally, online courses have become popular for those with Internet access who prefer not to attend a traditional class. Here are some links to foreign language resources and online courses:;;;; and

Anyone willing to put in the necessary time has the ability to learn a foreign language. The following are some practical suggestions, courtesy of City College of San Francisco, for studying effectively, overcoming anxiety and learning the grammar and skills necessary for success in foreign language courses.

1. STUDY EVERY DAY. Language learning is cumulative: you cannot put it off until the last minute. Make sure to work on it every day.

2. DISTRIBUTE YOUR STUDY TIME. Setting aside 15- to 30-minute periods intermittently throughout the day is a good suggestion. In between a morning and afternoon route is a great time to study.

3. ALTERNATE TASKS WHEN YOU STUDY. For example, vocabulary during one period and grammar in the next, etc. Approximately 80 percent of your study time should be spent in recitation or practice.

4. ATTEND AND PARTICIPATE IN ALL CLASSES. Even if you are not well prepared, class time is your primary opportunity for practice. Learn as much as possible outside of class in order to make the most of class time.

5. MAKE YOURSELF COMFORTABLE IN THE CLASS. Get to know classmates and, if possible, visit your instructor outside of class hours.

6. LEARN ENGLISH GRAMMAR. Grammar is the skeleton of a language, its basic structure. You must learn it. Review a simplified English grammar text to refresh, and compare new grammatical structures in your foreign language to their English equivalents.

7. PRACTICE FOR TESTS. Do exactly what you will have to do on the test. If the test requires you to write, then study by writing. Ask for practice questions or make up your own test questions.

8. KEEP A GOOD ATTITUDE. Remember your reasons, personal and professional, for taking the class. Set personal goals for what you want to learn and visualize how new language skills will benefit you in your job.

9. GET HELP IF YOU NEED IT. Talk with your teacher. Form study groups among class members or find a tutoring service. Talk to a foreign language teacher at one of your district’s schools. Be active.