In December 2021, student transportation provider Zum announced that Liz Sanchez was joining the company as its first-ever executive vice president of school transportation. Her job: helping build and scale student transportation operations and Zum’s overall footprint across the United States.
For more than 30 years, Sanchez has held roles in the industry, from National Express School (NEXS) to a seat on the National School Transportation Association (NSTA) board of directors. Her parents immigrated to the United States from Cuba and she was born and raised in Los Angeles. Outside of work, she especially enjoys time with grandchildren and other relatives, and she dabbles in real-estate investment.
In this interview with School Bus Fleet, Sanchez talks about moving into this new role at Zum and how the company is positioned to continue making a difference in the pupil transportation industry.
What attracted you to this new role at Zum?
Over the past few years, the pandemic highlighted the long-overdue need for digitization and agility in student transportation, and the recent impacts of climate change have demonstrated we must take swift action to help the planet. School districts and families alike are demanding that the system provide visibility, safety, and efficiency, all of which can be enhanced with the help of technology. Electrification of school bus fleets (which travel about 4 billion miles per year) can contribute greatly to sustainability goals.
Zum is focused on bringing school districts the best in student transportation technology, as well as driving the industry toward a fully electric future. The company has already made impressive steps in reimagining student transportation and has grown rapidly. I’m excited to build on that momentum across the industry with this team. I also admire the leadership, diversity, and culture of inclusivity at Zum. Customers see themselves represented in the company and it’s a trusted partner to the communities it serves.
Is the nationwide driver shortage felt by school districts also affecting Zum?
Zum is not facing the school bus driver shortage as acutely as others in the industry. An important reason for this is our multi-vehicle approach – we deploy the best type of vehicle for each route including buses, cars, and vans. This allows us to serve students in diverse scenarios – ranging from a door-to-door trip to a single child moving inter-city for an IEP program to 50 students moving as a group. This novel approach also solves many other relevant challenges like decreasing travel time for students, optimizing carbon footprint, and reducing costs for districts. In addition, we’re focused on providing drivers with:
- Excellent work culture - Zum has been consistently independently rated as Best Places to Work. Drivers are at the company’s core and we’ve designed a culture where they feel valued. This is reflected in everything from facilities and equipment to training and benefits.
- Competitive pay - Zum is known for compensating school bus drivers by market rate, rather than the legacy school transportation industry norms.
- Advanced technology and tools - Zum provides advanced technology and tools to our drivers which helps them excel at their job and provide great service.
How do you think this taxi-style approach to student transportation works compared to traditional school buses? It seems like it’s more convenient in some ways, but complicated from a quality assurance standpoint (not just ensuring that drivers are qualified, but also that their vehicles are properly maintained).
Zum offers a comprehensive student transportation service, serving 4,000 schools across the US, including the entirety of the student transportation needs for San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) and Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). For SFUSD, we operate around 200 school buses and around 20 vans, which are deployed strategically to meet the various development and education needs of students and the district. For OUSD, Zum serves 1,300 students across 87 schools and has increased on-time arrival rates by 95% or more across the district. Our district partners rely on Zum to manage daily operations, track and plan vehicle use, maintain driver profiles, and analyze performance and service data.
Zum has built technology with an aim to make safety predictive and our platform is centered around a 360-degree approach to student safety. This starts with radical transparency through Zum’s technology and apps — districts, operators, and parents are able to track rides in a map view from start to finish, providing visibility into each student’s whereabouts based on RFID technology.
We meet or exceed all traditional student transportation industry standards. Our drivers are required to adhere to safety protocols, including procedures around secure seat belt buckling, designated pickup and dropoff locations and mobile device usage. Drivers are trained, receive FBI and DOJ background checks and drug tests as required by regulators. We analyze data based on driver safety scores, customer ratings and vehicle performance to train our drivers, improve processes and maintain vehicles. The approach is new to the otherwise legacy school transportation industry and is where we envision the world of modern mobility solutions heading.
How popular is the service when it comes to families whose children have special needs?
A cornerstone of Zum’s service is direct communication with families, which is especially critical for families where a child has a disability or special needs. Zum’s mobile app provides families with ongoing visibility into route updates, a child’s location, and the driver’s profile. Through the Zum app, drivers also have access to student profiles, which parents populate with important information about their child’s needs. Families can also use the app to share changes in schedule or pickup location, preferences, and feedback, as well as speak with the Zum team directly at any time. More transparency, more control and better communication at every step in the process means families can worry less about how their kids are getting to and from school. This emphasis on personalized care has helped provide families with special needs children peace of mind from the moment their child walks out the front door until the moment they return home.
What features and options are available to passengers with special needs?
Our cloud-based service shares real-time route updates as well as students’ needs and preferences with drivers so they can deliver a superior experience.
Additionally, beginning next year, Zum will be the only student transportation platform that will seamlessly integrate with district student information systems. Zum technology supports student profile details, including pictures, special instructions, and customized route details to allow for the safest experience for students and peace of mind for parents and districts. With this information, drivers will be better equipped to verify pick-ups and drop-offs, as well as provide the right support for students with special needs.