Precious Cargo on Board

For students with disabilities, transportation independence can mean freedom. Yet this individuality isn’t achieved through wishful thinking. It’s obtained by establishing a steady groundwork of hands-on experience and careful instruction. 

While children throughout the nation would benefit from interactive tutoring on how to behave on the school bus, particular focus should be devoted to students with disabilities, as they are sometimes delayed in transitioning to full autonomy from a lack of comprehensive training in transporting themselves.

“So many of our young general education students and students with special needs have not been taught how to be safe in and around the school bus,” said Pete Meslin, transportation director for Newport-Mesa Unified in Southern California. “When we see these students in adult transition programs, they are not always successful in becoming transportation independent. That is, for many it is too late to develop the essential safety habits necessary to ride public transit by themselves.”

Newport-Mesa transports roughly 525 students with disabilities on school buses driven by district drivers. Since there are no designated buses for specific passengers, Meslin reported that it’s not uncommon for students with disabilities to ride on the same bus as homeless students and other students in the general education program.

“We try not to devote buses to any specific population of students because we serve students in the least restrictive environment,” said Meslin. “This means that students with disabilities, where possible, should be served in the same manner as their non-disabled peers. This also reduces the stigma associated with the ‘short bus.’” 

Schools often require outside assistance in delivering the essential accommodations. Franklin Gregory, superintendent for the nearby Tustin Unified School District, identified 350 special education students transported throughout the district. It subcontracts its specialized transportation needs to First Student. 

“It’s easier to outsource the function for all students,” said Gregory. “All districts with which I’m familiar take care of all student transportation. In the same way, either you have your own fleet and drivers, or you contract out. Most don’t mix and match.” 

Gregory stated that the individual needs of each special education student are taken into consideration when offering transportation. The overall concern, Gregory believed, which is key to transporting students with special needs successfully, is delivering options that provide the least restrictive environment possible.  

Transportation department work diligently to never lose sight of each student’s individual uniqueness.

Meslin said that although transportation training for special needs students has emphasized safety, as it should, it can be more of a convenient approach for districts that have a number of limitations. This is detrimental to developing student skills. 

“There is a growing recognition that transportation departments are not preparing our students as well as we could for successful post-secondary lives,” said Meslin. “Educators know that teaching skills early and often is the key to building successful students. This is the reason why early intervention is so widely practiced in classrooms.”

Independence-Minded

Meslin is a lifelong advocate for building independence skills for students with disabilities. However, he pointed out, this belief did have broad implementation. While it was generally agreed upon that treating transportation as any other related service would further the concept of student independence, especially for students with disabilities, no one created and applied a transportation skills curriculum. 

This combination led Meslin to develop the ‘Bus in the Classroom’ program at Newport-Mesa, which helps establish the groundwork for special needs children to ride the variety of transportation methods they will encounter throughout life successfully.

“As with any related service, establishing grade and disability based standards for independence encourages and supports student achievement,” he said. “This standards-based approach was widely recognized and supported by the transportation community.”

The program forms a close bond between special needs educators and the drivers who present the information, detailing the curriculum and receiving feedback to best teach the students involved. 

The benefits reach far beyond the classroom for instructors involved. The training cultivates a mutual respect between special educators and transporters, and the drivers involved gain more knowledge and skills to serve their students that they take to their transportation departments. In addition, routes run more effectively and efficiently since students are more prepared to board and exit the bus properly. 

Much like life, though, prepping special needs kids for tackling transportation has a few restrictions. More in terms of logistics, Meslin stressed. 

He offered the instance of training students in wheelchairs, as their need may vary in terms of impairment. The Bus in the Classroom, Meslin stated, hasn’t successfully taught the program to an “entire class of students who are significantly physically impaired.”

“Since the intent of the program is to develop transportation-related life skills, it’s likely it won’t be as successful with students whose disabilities are so severe that they cannot function without constant adult support,” said Meslin. “Similarly, for students that are equipment dependent, the program can only teach life skills that would apply to that student. For example, the student will still be dependent upon the driver to load and secure him or her on the bus even though some public transit operations allow or require people in wheelchairs to load themselves.” 

As with everything, these are only minor hitches to an otherwise important endeavor for school districts and transportation departments to embark upon, as Meslin noted, “We have seen significant benefits for students with special needs in a variety of age ranges and with a variety of disabilities; however, the curriculum has not been tested for every disability.” 

He suggested that while the program does not teach all the skills that might be associated with independent adult transportation, the Bus in the Classroom constructs the necessary foundation for self-sufficient future. The more advanced “stranger danger” topics, as Meslin put it, are left to the life skills classes and adult transition programs. 

Watch the archived webinar “Transportation: Thinking Like an Educators.”