Ancient Roman philosopher Seneca is credited with saying, “Luck comes when preparation meets opportunity.” LaToya King may not know Seneca, but she does know the importance of preparation.
Building on the knowledge gained prior to becoming director of transportation at South Bend Community School Corporation in Indiana, King implemented a three-tier transportation model to optimize routes to address the driver shortage. The plan also mitigated the impact of COVID on his district as the pandemic wreaked havoc on school districts across the country.
Other school districts have a tiered bus system, so South Bend was not unique. But the three-tier system is not an easy sell. The conventional thinking is that it takes months to move from the traditional model of student transportation to a three tier system, as it disrupts the routines of families, teachers and the educational community as a whole, as it places their lives structured on a different schedule.
King and his assistant director Greg Dettinger did it in six weeks.
South Bend, Indiana’s third largest district, carries 7,900 of the society’s 13,000 students, King said, so it was no small task.
King, a former school bus driver, was the district’s operations supervisor for six years before becoming director of transportation last October.
“During my tenure as operations supervisor and driver, I knew we had to change the South Bend schools narrative about how we do business, how we provide transportation,” King recalls.
Dettinger noted that student transportation was a quagmire. Besides the disarray of routes, he said there was a high volume of driver absenteeism which peaked between 18 and 25 drivers calling on pay days. On a payday, he recalls, there were 37 short routes.
“Some would cancel and others would be final, no presentation,” Dettinger said. “We wouldn’t know they weren’t on the ride until a parent called and asked about the bus. We checked the GPS and learned that the bus never left the yard. We had to get creative and came up with the three tier plan. “
Dettinger further explained that the drivers would bid on a route and win it. But the following week, the driver would be on family sick leave and the road would be open again. “We had eight riders who did this to us in the first week,” he said. “We were missing 12 routes every day. This meant 12 schools were delayed an hour if it was a high school or college. It would be a two hour delay if it was an elementary school.
The wheels for change were set in motion when two school board members, tired of the issues, approached King for potential solutions.
“I sat down and did some research. I have had focus groups with parents, with our principals, several meetings with our superintendent and I have met with our union groups to present the three tier system proposal, ”King said. “I knew it had worked in other districts, I knew it had worked in Fort. Wayne and I knew it would work for us if we could implement the system.
At this point, King and Dettinger came up with a game plan. “We thought about and analyzed all the data and conducted an online survey of our parents, to see what was most important to them,” King said. “Parents said getting the kids to school on time was the most important thing. So we knew we had to make this change, so we put that in motion and presented it to the school board and they unanimously approved the three tier bell system and we’ve been going on ever since.
South Bend Elementary School students start school at 7:30 a.m., high school students start at 8:30 a.m. and the bell rings at 9:30 a.m. for middle and academic grades. King said she had 134 pilots running all three levels. She said an hour is allowed between each level to give the drivers time to drop off the kids and pick up a different group of students.
“We have enough drivers to cover our routes right now, we just don’t have replacements. But we are moving the pilots so that the pilots who did not bid on certain levels become our replacement pilots for the levels they did not bid on, ”she said. “No day is the same, but our goal and our main focus this year is to make this system work at three levels and so far we have been blessed because it works.”
Seeing 25 drivers cancel every day is also a thing of the past. “We knew it would help us cope with our driver shortage,” she said. “We implemented it this year and have not had to cancel any of our routes. We had some delays but no cancellations.
“We had a few days where some drivers weren’t around, but other than that we make sure the students get to school on time,” King continued. “I’m grateful to say this has nothing to do with the past.”
King added that while it is difficult to maintain social distancing on buses, masks are mandatory for students and drivers and buses are disinfected between each route. She said no walking distance was increased even though the district chose to enforce the distances.
“We call them self-transport zones,” King explained. “We haven’t changed anything except that we are applying them more now. The autotransport zones were neither increased nor decreased. We just bolstered our self-transport zones by making sure that all of the students who lived in the self-transport zones were not on any buses. “
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The company does not have a Safe Routes to School program for self-carriers, but it does have hazards that are marked on its routing system, such as unsafe routes, unsafe streets, and a predator alert.
She said the self-transport zone for elementary school students is half a mile, one mile for middle school students and 1.5 miles for high school. “We currently have no parent accompanying the children to school,” King said. “So actually we’re doing pretty well. “
King said the company uses Tyler Technologies’ Versatrans routing system. “We haven’t consolidated any roads so far this year, we haven’t had to,” she said. “About 95% of the time our routes run on time. “
Dettinger added that drivers are also guaranteed a minimum of 4.6 hours of work, but most drivers average eight hours. “We also have drivers scheduled for overtime,” Dettinger said. “So the hours are up and morale is up. “