Hiring college students to drive school buses is nothing new in the industry, but school district officials northeast of Little Rock, Arkansas, have discovered that these drivers not only lessen the effects of a staff shortage but also prove to be beneficial in technology adoption and role modeling for students.
Faith Smith, a 21-year-old bus driver for Searcy Public Schools in White County, recounted her experience of following in her brother Daniel’s footsteps.
The siblings originally from Houston grew up camping at Camp Wyldewood in Searcy as kids. Daniel later attended Harding University, a private liberal arts university in Searcy. It was then that he started driving for a local church camp in town and obtained his commercial driver’s license.
The course was taught by Searcy Public Schools. Eventually, Daniel began substitute driving for the district in between his classes. Five years later, Faith followed suit.
Now a senior attending Harding University and studying preprofessional health studies, Faith Smith said she hopes to attend physician assistant school. She was working at a family practice clinic in town, but the hours weren’t conducive to her class schedule. Plus, she said she needed some extra spending money. Faith said she saw the school bus driver job advertisements all over town and applied.
Daniel, who now serves as the choir director for Searcy Public Schools, still drives a school bus on occasion and helped Faith get her foot in the transportation door. She began driving full-time in November and said she loves the children when of course they are not being overly difficult.
Two other students in their 20s attending Harding University are also driving for the district, one of whom started while Faith Smith was going through the training process.
“Once I got my license, I got a lot of attention in the Harding realm of things … I’ve got a lot of people my age, like my classmates, that want to hear about driving and are very interested in doing it themselves,” Smith said. “I don’t think any of them have pulled the trigger yet, but I have had several people that just want to hear about it and are interested in doing it.”
When other students ask her about her experience and the benefits of the job, she said she tells them this job allows them to meet the surrounding community. “I think it’s a great thing because the university here, while it is in the city, you could very easily isolate yourself from the surrounding community outside of the university, and a lot of students and faculty do so. But having this job allows me to very easily have a direct hand in the community, even with my co-workers that I would not have met otherwise.”
Though, she added, it’s easy to become intimidated by the driver’s seat, especially being a young, petite female. “A couple of weeks ago I was driving around of group of junior high and high school kids and I’m not exaggerating when I say that every single student was larger than I was,” Smith explained.
Still, she advised that bus driving is achievable for those who work at it. “I think a lot of it comes down to confidence,” she added, noting that if college students have the desire to drive for reasons other than money, then they will be successful.
“I have been very enriched and given such a good perspective, that is meaningful and transformative in this job, that I would not have had otherwise,” Smith said. “I would love for lots of young people to have a similar experience, but I think that I have only had this experience because I have allowed myself to.”
Searcy Transportation Director David Dale said he hopes Smith recruits her peers because driving is as ideal for college students as it is for the district. He said they can work in the morning before class and maybe an hour in the afternoon.
Betsy Bailey, the district’s media coordinator, added that younger school bus drivers could also serve as good role models to the student riders.
“I tell everyone that our bus drivers are oftentimes the first person that our students see in the morning and then maybe the last people that our students see at night, or in the evening depending on their home situation. And I think it’s outstanding that we have some younger individuals who are working in our department, because our students need good role models, and they need that younger generation to look at,” she explained. “We have a lot of drivers who have been in the district for many, many years, and they serve our students so well but sometimes it’s nice to see someone a little bit closer to your age that’s a good role model for you.”
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Dale added that as the district looks to install bus tablets, it will be easier to train someone “who’s had a smartphone a majority of their lives versus the older generation, who is a little more difficult to train,” he explained.
Smith advised advertising the importance of obtaining a CDL to college-age students who are considering educational or coaching careers, as having a CDL before graduating could attract would-be employers. She relayed that a professor at Harding shared that the university might start a course to assist physical education majors in getting their CDL, which could also benefit the school district.
Dale noted that younger applicants can be scared off by having to go through weeks of training for their CDL, so such a class would be extremely beneficial.