JEKYLL ISLAND, Ga. — A new statewide award is shining a spotlight on exemplary efforts in school bus safety in Georgia.
The Georgia Department of Education launched the Pupil Transportation Safety Awards to recognize school districts for “going above and beyond to ensure their students’ safety,” State School Superintendent Richard Woods said in a press release.
Woods presented the inaugural awards to eight school districts at the Georgia Association for Pupil Transportation conference at the Jekyll Island Convention Center on June 18.
As state superintendent, pupil transportation is in Woods’ purview, and he has previous experience in that realm: Earlier in his career, Woods was a high school principal who was certified to drive a school bus.
“Nothing is more important than the safety of our children, and making sure they can travel safely and arrive at school ready to learn,” Woods said. “Our drivers and transportation employees work harder than many ever realize, and they’re an integral part of our educational system. … These eight school districts are doing tough, innovative work and deserve to be commended.”
The Georgia Department of Education’s Pupil Transportation Safety Awards went to districts in eight divisions that are based on enrollment size. A panel of judges selected the winners based on an application that evaluated various school bus safety factors. Those included completing safety training, evacuation drills, and other safety initiatives with students; evaluation of accidents and internal practices to prevent accidents; and innovative initiatives to inspire safe practices, hire and retrain drivers, and enhance student safety.
Here are the winners of the state’s first Pupil Transportation Safety Awards, which were sponsored by Georgia-based school bus manufacturer Blue Bird and dealer Yancey Bus Sales & Service: • Jenkins County School System, winner in Division 1 (student enrollment from one to 1,300), transports about 88% of its student population to and from school each day. Transportation staff members conduct three emergency evacuation drills each year with students, and all field trip/extracurricular drivers give an explanation of evacuation procedures. The district partnered with its local electric cooperative to provide and improve signage at school bus stops in high-density areas to alert the public. Talmadge Fries is the district’s director of transportation services.
• Jasper County Charter System, winner in Division 2 (student enrollment from 1,301 to 2,400), provides about 30 to 36 additional hours of classroom training for school bus drivers, and requires 12 hours of behind-the-wheel training with students and 12 without. To improve morale, Transportation Director Jerry Williams invites all school staff and students to spend a full week celebrating School Bus Driver and Monitor Appreciation each year. The district has a mandatory local school bus roadeo each year.
• Chattooga County School District, winner in Division 3 (student enrollment from 2,401 to 2,900) prioritizes clear communication between students and staff about evacuation procedures. The district utilizes student tracking software; students scan a card as they enter and exit the bus, enabling staff to easily identify whether a student is on the bus, missed the bus, or got off at the wrong stop. Leaders make a point of discussing safety issues with drivers and maintaining morale by listening carefully to driver concerns and providing input. Mike Jarrett is the transportation supervisor.
• Washington County Public Schools, winner in Division 4 (student enrollment from 2,901 to 3,700) transports more than 60% of its students. The district partners with Sandersville Railroad to conduct Operation Lifesaver training with school bus drivers, and the Washington County Board of Education this year approved an across-the-board pay raise for all drivers and monitors that will begin in August. All transportation personnel can attend any school function at no cost, and transportation is included in every district function. Willie Coneway is the director of transportation.
• Pickens County Schools, winner in Division 5 (student enrollment from 3,701 to 5,250) transports about 2,200 students to and from school each day. The district conducts skills assessments each year, and drivers receive online training. Also, the county nurse provides instruction on EpiPens and Diastat pens. Students are reminded at every stop to look, listen, and watch the driver before moving toward or away from the school bus, and the district awards a weekly “bus rider of the week.” Cherri Howell is the transportation supervisor.
• Jackson County School System, winner in Division 6 (student enrollment from 5,251 to 8,850) transports 4,500 students each day. The district provides additional training to cover key issues that can lead to school bus accidents, with a focus on loading and unloading procedures, tail swing, student management, and local policies and procedures. An engaging, student-focused bus safety program is conducted at the district’s elementary and middle schools twice a year. The district pays a $500 referral bonus to transportation employees who recruit new drivers (after six months of successful employment). The district also provides an incentive of $50 per month for drivers with perfect attendance. David Farmer is the director of transportation.
• Catoosa County Public Schools, winner in Division 7 (student enrollment from 8,851 to 17,000) requires a minimum of 16 hours of classroom training, and an average of 20, for new drivers. Additional driver training is offered on topics such as laws, policies, and procedures; inspections; loading and unloading; emergencies; evacuations; accident reporting and procedures; and special-needs transportation. An accident review committee meets and reviews any accidents that occur, minor or major, and makes a determination on additional training needed. Jerene Jones is the transportation director.
• Fulton County Schools, winner in Division 8 (student enrollment from 17,001 to 178,200) has 800 school buses traveling more than 7.5 million miles annually. In addition to federal and state mandated training, the district adds training that begins the day an applicant comes to orientation. The transportation department is an active participant in the district’s strategic goal to increase the percentage of students reading at or above grade level by third grade. To that end, the department is adding magnetized “sight word” signs on the interior ceiling of the buses that serve four pilot schools. Sam Ham is the executive director of transportation, and Vickie Cross is the transportation director.