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A Valuable Lesson from a Hall of Fame Teacher

When the great Ezra Carlisle Beasley, Jr. passed away on Memorial Day, I learned an incredible statistic. In 33 years at the helm of transportation services for Metro Nashville Public Schools, not one student died or suffered a serious injury on or around the school bus. Let’s unpack that.

In those days, Metro Nashville had an average of 50,000 school bus riders. Over a 180-day school year, that equates to somewhere in the neighborhood of 18 million rides to school each morning and home again each afternoon. Counting field trips, sporting trips, and extracurricular activities, the real number was likely well over 20 million rides a school year.

That means Beasley, who sits immortal in the NAPT Hall of Fame, oversaw 600 million student rides during his storied career and never experienced one serious incident involving a student.

Now that’s a real safety record.

To put it in further perspective, approximately 480,000 school buses nationwide operate around 10 billion rides per year. So, Beasley’s feat is truly Goliath in the annals of student transportation history.

The modern student transportation industry was built on the backs of men and women like Beasley, who cared for the children riding their school buses as if they were their own. They demanded the same accountability and passion from their employees. They are the epitome of a “safety culture.”

You hear that phrase thrown around a lot in this industry. And no doubt, it takes a special someone to dedicate their life to this most noble yet underappreciated of professions. In many areas across the nation, the starting wage rivals that at Walmart.

But instead of dealing with angry customers all day, school bus drivers operate 40-foot, yellow-painted steel boxes that carry dozens of young, often rambunctious souls. They are, by the way, seated behind the driver, all while other motorists’ speed past or swerve in front of the school bus. Then there are the demanding parents, exacting superintendents, school boards, and often vexing school principals.

I over-generalize, but my point is that at every turn, the obstacles stack up against student transporters. Yet a common refrain I hear from student transporters I speak with on the phone or at one of our conferences, is that they do it for the safety of “my kids” or “my babies.” These values contribute to school buses having the safest record of transporting children to and from school when compared to other modes.

Which brings us back to the word “culture,” or the beliefs and values that define an organization’s purpose. To a person, the mission of student transportation should be memorized, repeated and shouted from atop the highest transit-style bus. “To safely deliver students to school, ready to learn and home again.”

Within reason, everything the hundreds of thousands of school bus drivers, attendants, technicians, trainers, routers, dispatchers, supervisors and directors do from the time they rise before the sun until they rest their heads on their pillows at night, should work toward that goal.

Alas, we are all fallible humans, and too often the almighty dollar distracts us from our purpose. The industry must do everything in its power each and every day to fight complacency and refocus on the core mission—especially coming out of a school year that saw a horrific spike in student fatalities. That takes courageous leaders, like Carlisle Beasley and the thousands who have come after him.

They have to demand accountability out of themselves and their staffs to do what they say and say what they mean. The next great leader might just be starting for you this summer.

Take this time to prepare that employee and all of the others to truly understand the life-changing and society-impacting jobs they are about to begin. Inspire them to achieve great things—or to quit as soon as possible, to breed out complacency that can allow risky behaviors to take root.

Encourage innovation, foster communication, question the status quo and advocate for the children. Driver shortage or not, transporting students to and from school plays far too vital of a role in securing our nation’s future to take chances with anything less.

Our friend Carlisle Beasley first learned this lesson five decades ago. His example is one we can all strive to live up to every day for every child.

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