Staff driven to deliver students safely
Spanning about 36 bright yellow-orange feet, a typical school bus is trickier to maneuver than the family car -- or even the family extra-long conversion van.
But there's a course for bus driver's education, too.
"That's why we're here," said Frieda Wells, De Soto's Laidlaw Transit manager. "By the time we get through with them, they can drive anything on the lot."
About 20 new bus drivers for De Soto USD 232 are completing training this week just in time to haul students to their first day of school on Thursday. Besides learning tricks of the trade for operating a bus, new drivers undergo background checks, mechanical quizzes and "student management" training.
Drivers say effectively driving a bus takes some well-practiced finesse.
School buses are big, slow and don't bend a bit, said Wells, herself a bus-driving veteran of more than 20 years.
"It does take some getting used to to get them around corners," Wells said.
For safety reasons, backing up is a last-resort.
"You don't back up unless you absolutely have to," Wells said.
If drivers ever do find themselves wedged-in somewhere, they're supposed to call dispatch first for non-routine backing approval, Wells said.
Then the driver starts the inchworm-esque process of making a 36-foot lumbering contraption that doesn't bend in the middle miraculously slither out of a tight spot.
"They call it rock 'n' roll," Wells said. "You rock to the left, and you roll to the right, and you do it over and over."
Driver trainer Kathy Tillery agreed and said she taught new drivers a few more helpful tips.
"You have to know your reference points and your pivot points," she said, pointing to various spots up and down the body of training bus No. 35.
When turning, drivers learn to line up certain parts of the bus with obstacles like curbs and other buses parked nearby in the lot.
For example, when pulling out of a parking stall, drivers know the tail of the bus will clear the next bus when their own back tires reach the other's front bumper.
Laidlaw starts recruiting school-year drivers each July.
Before hauling any children, drivers must clock 20 hours in the classroom and 20 on the road with a trainer.
Besides maneuvering the bus, they must also learn about maneuvering kids. First aid, CPR and student management are all required lessons, too.
New driver Nicole Keehn of De Soto spent about four hours Monday driving with Tillery.
Keehn said the student management part made her a little nervous for her first day.
"I'm afraid they're really going to be little terrors," she said.
However, Keehn said any unruly students would be candidates for a write-up. That puts them into the principal's hands, not hers.
Also, each new hire must get a commercial driver's license and undergo a criminal record check, driver's license check and random drug screening.
"You don't just put 'em behind the wheel," Wells said. "I know that's what a lot of people think, but that couldn't be further from the truth."
Wells said the district's drivers included retirees and a few ex-truck drivers but that most of this year's new hires were young mothers, like Keehn, who has a one-year-old daughter.
A part time job driving a school bus allows a mother to be home when children are home. Children who aren't old enough to go to school are allowed to ride on the bus with their parents.
Keehn said she'd like to have her daughter in day care but that taking her on the bus would be a lot more affordable.
De Soto schools contract Laidlaw to transport all of the district's bus-riding students. About half of the district's 4,800 students rode to school, Wells said.
Laidlaw spreads the work between 52 drivers, about 20 of whom are new this year.
Tillery said after overcoming operating obstacles, building relationships with young passengers was her favorite part of driving the school bus.
"Once you get the hang of it, it's fun," she said.