The ancient Roman philosopher Seneca is credited with saying, “Luck happens when preparation meets opportunity.” LaToya King may not be familiar with Seneca, but she knows the importance of preparation.
Drawing upon the insight she gained before becoming the transportation director of the South Bend Community School Corporation in Indiana, King implemented a three-tiered transportation model to optimize her routes to offset the driver shortage. The plan also mitigated COVID’s impact on her district while the pandemic wreaked havoc on school districts around the nation.
Other school districts have a tiered busing system so South Bend was not unique. But the three-tiered system is not an easy sell. Conventional thinking is that it takes months to convert from the traditional student transportation model to a three-tier system because it disrupts the routines of families, teachers and the educational community at-large , as it puts their structured lives on a different schedule.
King and her assistant director Greg Dettinger did it in six weeks.
South Bend, the third largest distrcit in Indiana, transports 7,900 of the corporation’s 13,000 students, King relayed, so this was no small task.
King, a former school bus driver, was the district’s operations supervisor for six years before becoming transportation director last October.
“During my tenure as operations supervisor and driver, I knew that we had to change the narrative of South Bend Schools on how we did business, how we provided transportation,” King recalled.
Dettinger noted that student transportation was a quagmire. Besides the routes being in disarray, he said there was a high volume of driver absenteeism that peaked to between 18 and 25 drivers calling off on paydays. One payday, he recalled, they were short 37 routes.
“Some would call off and some would be no call, no shows,” Dettinger said. “We wouldn’t know they were not on the route until a parent would call and ask about the bus. We’d check the GPS and learn the bus never left the yard. We had to get creative and came up with the three-tier plan.”
Dettinger further explained that drivers would bid on a route and win it. But the next week, the driver would be out on the Family Medical Leave Act and the route would be open again. “We had eight drivers do that to us the first week,” he said. “We were 12 routes short every day. That meant that 12 schools were put on a one-hour delay if they were a high school or middle school. It would be a two-hour delay if they were an elementary school.”
The wheels toward change were set in motion when two members of the school board, fed up with the issues, approached King for potential solutions.
“I sat down and did some research. I had focus groups with parents, with our principals, several meetings with our superintendent, and met with our union groups to present the proposal for the three-tiered system,” King said. “I knew it had worked in other districts I knew it had worked in Ft. Wayne and I knew that it would work for us if we could get the system implemented.”
At that point, King and Dettinger came up with a game plan. “We put our heads together and ran all the data and conducted an online survey of our parents, to see what was more important to them,” King explained. “The parents said getting the kids to school on time was most important. So, then we knew we had to make this change, so we put this in motion and presented it to the school board and they unanimously approved the three-tier bell system and we’ve be rolling ever since.”
South Bend’s elementary school students begin school at 7:30 a.m., high school students begin classes at 8:30 a.m., and the bell rings at 9:30 a.m. for intermediate and academy classes. King said she has 134 drivers performing the three tiers. She said an hour is allowed between each tier to give the drivers time to drop off kids and pick up a different group of students.
“We have enough drivers to cover our routes right now, we just don’t have any substitutes. But we move drivers around so the drivers who did not bid on certain tiers become our substitute drivers for the tiers they did not bid on,” she said. “No day is the same, but our goal and main focus this year is to make this three-tier system work and so far, we’ve been blessed because it is working.”
Seeing 25 drivers calling off each day is also now a thing of the past. “We knew that it would help us with our driver shortage,” she emphasized. “We implemented it this year and we have not had to cancel any of our routes. We have had some delays but no cancellations.
“We’ve had a few days when some drivers aren’t here, but other than that we’re making sure students are getting to school on time,” King continued. “I’m grateful to say it’s been nothing like it’s been in the past.”
King added that while it is difficult to maintain social distancing on the buses, masks are mandated for students and drivers and buses are sanitized between each route. She said no walking route distances were increased even though the district chose to enforce the distances.
“We call them self-transport zones,” King explained. “We have not changed anything except that we are enforcing them more now. Self-transport zones were not increased or decreased. We just enforced our self-transport zones by making sure that all those students who lived in the self-transport zones were not on any buses.”
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The corporation has no Safe Routes to School program for self-transporters, but it does have hazards that are indicated on its routing system, such as dangerous routes, unsafe streets and a predator alert.
She said the self-transport zone for elementary students is a half mile, a mile for middle schoolers and 1.5 miles for high school. “We don’t currently have any parents giving kids rides to school,” King said. “So, actually, we’re doing pretty good.”
King said the corporation uses the Versatrans routing system by Tyler Technologies. “We have not consolidated any routes so far this year we have not had to do that,” she said. “About 95 percent of the time our routes do run on time.”
Dettinger added that drivers are also guaranteed a minimum of 4.6-hour shifts but most drivers average eight hours. “We also have drivers scheduled for overtime,” Dettinger said. “So, hours are up and morale is up.”