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Schools take the boring out of long bus rides

GPS, maps, and alternative fuels also help districts save money
More students in Fairfield Community Schools in Goshen, Ind., are taking the bus due to tougher economic times. It increased ridership from about 2,700 in 2009 to more than 2,800 this year. In turn, rides are longer for students. Above, one New Paris Elementary School bus ride is 55 minutes long.
More students in Fairfield Community Schools in Goshen, Ind., are taking the bus due to tougher economic times. It increased ridership from about 2,700 in 2009 to more than 2,800 this year. In turn, rides are longer for students. Above, one New Paris Elementary School bus ride is 55 minutes long.

Innovations ranging from on-board music to digital mapping and alternative fuels are making long bus rides better experiences for students while also helping districts make transportation more efficient.

Experience shows that children who spend more time on buses are likely to get bored or behave badly. For rural districts, where hour-long rides are not uncommon and some may exceed two hours, the situation can be especially problematic.

“On longer rides, some students tend to ‘act out’ more in ways such as not keeping their hands or feet to themselves, arguing, or generally showing irritability,” says Micheline Miglis, superintendent of Plumas USD in Plumas County, Calif., located at the northern end of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. “Some also need the restroom or start to get hungry.”

This year, the situation at Plumas has been exacerbated by staff cutbacks. In the past, elementary students with the greatest distance to travel were allowed to play on the playground while buses completed nearby routes and then returned to pick them up. But with fewer staff to supervise them, younger students must now board buses earlier for rides made longer by the local stops. Students in one elementary school in her district can be on the bus for as long as two hours and five minutes on their ride home. “It is very disheartening and it is not our first choice,” Miglis adds. “This is a result of our commitment to provide the transportation, albeit, with this unintended impact.”

At Fairfield Community Schools in Goshen, Ind., an increase in riders from about 2,670 in 2009-2010 to over 2,800 this year has lengthened the time students spend on buses as they make more stops, says Superintendent Steve Thalheimer. Noting that the enrollment has remained steady, he attributes the growth to economic factors.

Along with more parents of younger students saving on car expenses by opting for their kids to ride the bus, fewer teens have been driving themselves to school, he says.

“More families have been finding it harder to afford the car, the gas, and the insurance,” he says. “After the economic downturn, you could notice fewer cars in the junior-senior high school parking lot, and bus drivers have reported that more and more high school students are staying on past their freshman and sophomore years.”

A ride that flies

In dealing with longer bus rides, officials are finding ways to distract students, keep them busy, and save drivers the frustration of dealing with students who may be bored or too often, rowdy. In the Fairfield schools’ case, a simple strategy has been to relax regulations prohibiting the use of electronic devices on buses. Thalheimer says that concerns about distracting drivers and causing disruptions among students had led to a ban on electronics that was in place when he came on board in 2008.

“There was concern that students would be out of their seats or over the backs of seats to see what other students were doing, and there were occasional conflicts over devices if they were brought out,” he says.  “As we moved toward allowing them on field trips and extracurricular trips, we came to discover they weren’t as disruptive as they once were, and in many ways, they helped occupy students so there were fewer problems. Two years ago, we changed our bus expectations to allow the students to have the devices as long as they did not prove distractive to the driver.”

Taking matters further, districts such as Joplin Schools in Missouri, Eastern Carver County schools in Chaska, Minn., and Prosser School District in Washington have started equipping buses with Wi-Fi. The main objective is to allow students to tackle homework with tablets or smartphones, though casual use of the devices can also keep riders occupied.

In Horry County Schools in South Carolina, recorded announcements and music are played through small audio units on buses. The announcements advise children on measures such as staying seated, keeping their hands to themselves, and being quiet as the vehicle approaches railroad crossings, according to Jim Wright, director of transportation.

Messages can also be recorded for drivers. This feature is especially useful for substitutes, allowing them to listen to oral route instructions and concentrate on driving without having to refer to a printed sheet, Wright says.

The units play music when not broadcasting announcements. Wright conducted an internet search using “calming effects” and “music” as search terms, and with help from his teenage son, he chose quiet instrumental music. “It’s delta wave style music similar to what you would hear in a spa or during meditation,” he says. “We listened to numerous types of music and then went with what we considered the most relaxing.”

The devices have been placed on 10 of the district’s 373 buses as a pilot project for the 2013-2014 school year. If bus discipline has improved and the equipment has consistently performed well, the district hopes to expand the program. Wright feels the costs are reasonable—equipping each bus cost less than $1,500 each. “It’s looking good so far,” Wright says. “We’ve already seen an improvement in behavior.”

Technology improvements

As with other aspects of district management, technology is making rides more efficient. Perhaps most significant is the growing use of route management software.

“There is a trend toward use of computerized routing instead of old pin-and-string routing,” says Michael J. Martin, executive director for the National Association for Pupil Transportation. “More and more districts are going to computer-based systems. This can help make routes shorter and more efficient, and less expensive.”

Many district administrators also are using GPS technology along with route management software to make more precise maps, Martin says.

“When you have both of these resources, that’s when you become truly efficient,” he says. “We feel that’s an essential element of a well-run transportation department in a school system.”

Thalheimer, of Goshen schools, agrees. “I can’t imagine trying to adjust to changes without the help of a transportation software program,” he says.  “Using that technology has been key for us.”

Before Goshen obtained software, routing was done through maps coded with colored pencils.Rosters of students were maintained in an Excel spreadsheet containing individual worksheets that listed students in order of their stops.

“If we needed to find what route a student was on, we had to determine which route or two the student might be on and then search the various worksheet tabs to find where the student was,” Thalheimer says. “Now, we can search by student, call up a map of a route, and even print a map of that route.”

He recalls an instance where redistricting was being considered to balance out enrollments in elementary school.  “I was able to copy the current database of students that year, roll kids up a grade, and then mock up various what-if scenarios for dealing with moving students.  We ended up not needing to make that move, but I could experiment easily and quickly with the software.”

Another increasingly popular measure is using alternative fuels, most commonly propane, to power buses. According to the Propane Education and Research Council, school buses fueled by propane provide a clean and affordable alternative to diesel in a growing number of school bus fleets across the United States. They emit 20 percent less nitrogen oxide and 60 percent less carbon monoxide while providing comparable power, requiring less maintenance and reducing operating costs.

The financial equation also works out. While buses equipped to burn propane cost a few thousand dollars more than diesel-powered vehicles, the per-gallon cost of propane averages one-half to two-thirds that of diesel. The savings are quickly realized and can be used to make further upgrades.

That’s the plan at Gateway School District in Monroeville, Pa., which has gone with propane this year. The district has entered into a seven-year contract with a transportation company to operate a fleet of propane-powered buses for an estimated savings to the district of more than $320,000 in 2013-2014.

Zumwalt School District in O’Fallon, Mo., purchased eight propane-fueled buses two years ago and officials were pleased with the results. “We were very happy with savings on fuel and mechanically they were sound,” says Jeff Schwepker, director of transportation. He says the district added 22 more this year for a total of 30 out of 168 buses. Plans are to add 25 more next year.

On mission

Martin says that as districts take creative steps to connect students’ bus experiences with their academic work, and as efficient operations contribute to a system’s overall financial well-being, the transportation function seems an increasingly integral one.

“We’re pleased to see more and more school administrators starting to focus on the fact that transportation is important to the educational mission,” Martin says.

Mark Rowh is a freelance writer in Virginia.

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