Like many young children who have the hope of one day becoming a doctor, police officer or firefighter, Katrina Falk knew exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up.
In fact, her future career revealed itself the moment she saw a brand-new, 84-passenger transit-style school bus come to pick her up for her first day of second grade at Carmel Clay Schools in Indiana.
“I was in second grade when I knew that I was going to become a school bus driver,” Falk recalled. “My bus driver, Thelma Combs, was amazing. I had always been intrigued by school buses, but the combination of the brand-new school bus and an incredible bus driver laid the foundation for what has become a lifelong passion.”
She noted when she was younger, she always incorporated school buses into her schoolwork. For example, she remembers being asked to draw a picture of her favorite part of a field trip, and she drew the school bus ride.
During her junior year of high school, her family moved to California for her father’s, job. It was there, she recalled, that her passion exploded. Shortly after her 16th birthday, she bought her first “car.”
But it wasn’t really a car and was far different than what her classmates chose to drive.
“I had always had a particular fascination with West Coast school buses, namely Crown Supercoaches and Gillig Transit Coaches, and when my best friend [Gina Gregory, one of Falk’s school bus drivers] brought to my attention some surplus Crown Supercoaches for sale in Mountain View, California, I knew that was my opportunity,” Falk explained. “My dad’s viewpoint differed from mine regarding primary modes of transportation, but over the subsequent Fourth of July long weekend, we made the trip from Southern California to Northern California and back to retrieve my new-to-me, 40-foot-long ‘car.’”
In addition to Gregory, who was still driving up until she passed away two years ago, Falk said she has been fortunate to have many mentors encourage her to follow her passion. She said she is still in contact with most of them on a regular basis. Those mentors include Ted Broad, currently a substitute school bus driver, Beverly Gilbert and Chuck Gills, who have since retired.
In June of 2000, Falk turned 18 years old and was a week away from graduating high school, when she started training to become a school bus driver. Falk said her pupil transportation career started when she was hired as a school bus driver by Certified Transportation, a private company in Santa Ana, California. Since then, she has held various roles in the transportation industry, including a parts and inventory specialist for a local school bus dealer.
However, she noted that being a school bus driver in California at 18 years old was no easy task. She encountered people who questioned her dedication to the job.
“There was always the underlying concern that a busload of high schoolers would be a problem for an 18-year-old school bus driver, but I never encountered that. My experience was quite the opposite,” Falk recalled. “The biggest problem I had involved a teacher who pulled me down the steps of my bus by the hood of my jacket while yelling, ‘Students aren’t allowed on the bus yet!’ Another one of our bus drivers had to intervene and vouch for me [that I was the driver.]”
After living in California for five years, she moved back to Indiana. However, she hadn’t turned 21 yet, the minimum age to be a school bus driver in the state. It was there she started working with Midwest Transit Equipment, while she awaited her 21st birthday.
In 2007, she started working as a school bus driver for Greenwood Community Schools in Greenwood, Indiana, and from there she became a bus yard and delivery coordinator for MacAllister Machinery Co.
One of her greatest personal accomplishments, however, was when she was offered her first director position at Fayette County Public Schools in Connersville, Indiana, in 2017. She said it was at that moment that her dream fully came true, when all her experience in and dedication to the industry merged with the knowledge she had obtained through professional development.
“Being able to serve as a director of transportation who had been there, done that was particularly important to me,” Falk said. “I wanted my staff to know I had been in their shoes, I had experienced the same challenges, frustrations and rewards. I understood how important yet oftentimes thankless their job was, and I was there to share both tears and laughter and there have been many occurrences of both.”
Then, in 2018, Falk started working at the assistant director of transportation at Shelby Eastern Schools in Indiana, and a year later was promoted to the director transportation position.
Changes Throughout Her 20-Year Career
Falk said she has witnessed several instrumental changes in school bus manufacturing, technology and training.
She noted that as a California school bus driver, she was expected to take her behind-the-wheel exam in a transit-style school bus with air brakes and a manual transmission. “I thought I was lucky to sneak out of the bus yard with one of the few 1988 Crown Supercoaches we had with an automatic transmission,” she recalled. “Today, being a ‘zero-restricted’ California State Certified School Bus Driver is more the exception than the rule, sadly. I feel fortunate to have caught the tail-end of what is becoming a by-gone era in school busing.”
She said she was initially hesitant to appreciate the new technology being developed by the school bus manufacturers, as she was firmly rooted in the historic aspect of the industry. But now, she not only appreciates but embraces them.
“Advancements in powertrains, onboard telematics, camera technology, and safety equipment, to name a few, have come at breakneck speed,” Falk observed. “It was a luxury to have a working two-way radio when I first started driving, and two-stroke diesel engines belching black smoke had yet to be outlawed, too.”
She said she has enjoyed watching onboard and in-office technology evolve, and she has spent a lot of time pursing the paring of GPS technology and routing software to compare and contrast planned versus actual events to improve safety, efficiency and service to her students and parents.
“Efficient routing aside, accountability for our students and their safety has always been paramount, and the ever-evolving technologies available to us continue to maintain student safety at the core,” she said.
Falk continued, “Speaking of planned versus actual events, my ‘routing software’ back in 2000 was a Thomas Guide [map] for Orange County and Los Angeles County. I would stick pink Post-It Notes to my dashboard with turn-by-turn directions written on them. At [Fayette County Public Schools], the routes were organized ever-so-slightly better. I inherited a large three-ring binder packed full of disheveled route sheets.”
However, she said she still couldn’t tell parents what bus their students were riding and realized that she needed to do better. She said she embarked on a routing software journey. Shelby Eastern Schools is currently undergoing an upgrade in its routing software platform from Transfinder Routefinder Pro to Transfinder Routefinder PLUS. She said that 20 years ago she would never have imagined what the suite of capabilities offered by the upgrade.
With technology, she said, comes misunderstanding and hesitancy, which closes the door to opportunity. She said she has noticed the over-generalization that technology is only meant for the large districts, but she said even they struggle to fully maximize its potential.
“I would encourage and advocate for smaller school districts, such as the one I work for, to not limit themselves in terms of industry innovations,” Falk said. “Technology can be that one-size-fits-all bundle, if you leverage it properly, whether you run 18 bus routes or 380 bus routes. I understand change can be difficult, especially for smaller school districts, however, it is possible.”
She noted that a hidden challenge that comes with technology is choosing the right one for a district’s needs. The choices, options and alternatives could be overwhelming to some. She advised that the popular choice, might not be the best choice for a particular district.
Instead, she encouraged directors to educate themselves and to reach out to people around them for information. “Oftentimes, we fall into the rut of simply doing things the way they have always been done. Take the time to reevaluate your operation against how you envision it. Changing the world overnight is impossible, and unadvisable, but you can take manageable steps towards achieving that vision,” she suggested.
However, despite the challenges, she said she has greatly enjoyed her role and presence in pupil transportation, and she strives to bring positive recognition to both her staff and her students.
“Rarely am I in my office during route times. I spend quite a bit of time on our routes, either driving or riding, as well as at our schools. I would equate a disconnect between myself and my staff to a personal failure,” she relayed.
While she added that she can never fully anticipate what the industry will throw at her, alluding to the current pandemic, pupil transportation remains a lifelong passion of hers. “I feel like I was lucky because I never had to worry about what I was going to do when I grew up,” she said.
Since stepping into the director’s role at Shelby Eastern Schools, she has become a Certified Pupil Transportation Specialist and a Certified Supervisor of Pupil Transportation through the National Association of Pupil Transportation. She said she had planned on taking her Certified Director of Pupil Transportation exam this year the NAPT conference, however, it was canceled due to COVID-19. Falk was also recognized as a Gold Award Winner in Zonar’s Inaugural All Star Awards.
“I truly believe our industry is one of the greatest industries there is, and that in itself is the ultimate accomplishment,” Falk said. “The unparalleled safety record, the dedication to our most precious cargo, the high-level of commitment between industry partners, a strong national organization and state organizations focusing on continued education and professional growth, and the comradery among peers are just a few aspects of this industry that lend to its overall strength and greatness.”
At 18 years old, Falk joined an online industry forum and found other kids her age who were also interested in school buses and pupil transportation. She said through that group alone she has formed life-long friendships. She said they were finally able to meet at industry events, such as the STN EXPO Reno. Falk said they still travel to industry events together when their schedules allow it, and they strive to get together at least once a year.
“Over the past two decades, some of us have taken the administrator route while others are now working for dealers,” Falk said. “Some have even branched into public transportation. We all have one another, though, not only do we share that industry comradery, we literally grew up together — at a distance, but bonded through a common passion.”
Falk offered this parting advice to her drivers, and all drivers nationwide. “You never know, you might be carrying the next director of transportation. Be the encourager and the reason for someone’s fond memories,” she shared. “I will always be the one presenting school bus safety to our K-5 students, using the school bus I own. I will always dress up as a reindeer before Christmas break, and moreover I will always be our students’ biggest cheerleader, no matter their passions and pursuits.”