“Transportation is becoming increasingly more complex because we’re offering more services and programs to our scholars, at least at our particular district, and to me, it’s so important to make sure that we treat the drivers fairly and accurately, and also show them the appreciation that they deserve,” advised Derrick Agate, transportation supervisor at Hopkins Public Schools in Minnesota.
He added that in his decades of experience, he has noticed that again and again that the first school staff to often be accused are the bus drivers. “It certainly takes a certain population of people to actually sit in a bus with 50-some-odd kids behind you going down a road and staying focused the entire time and getting them to school safely every day,” he added. “So, if there’s anything I would encourage the newer individuals coming into the industry is the drivers need to be treated fairly.”
Editor’s note — Since School Transportation News celebrated its 30th year in print in September, and the pearl is the traditional gift given for such anniversaries, throughout the year we will share stories and pearls of wisdom from student transportation professionals across North America.
Plus, he noted that during the pandemic, a heightened awareness of what school bus drivers do was revealed. For instance, drivers helped with meal and homework delivery. He added that school buses became mobile classrooms, equipped with Wi-Fi hotspots.
Agate attributed his success to several mentors who have stood out throughout his career. Just last week, he said, he called up Jan Vanderwall, former director of transportation for Roseville Area Schools in Minnesota, and thanked him for helping shape and mold his career. He noted that Vanderwall listened to his inquisitive questions and was there when Agate needed to pick his brain on certain subjects.
Another very influential couple in his life has been Walter and Georgia Metzler, the latter he refers to as Mom. Walter was Agate’s ninth-grade teacher and high school wrestling coach at John F. Kennedy High School in New Jersey, while Georgia was an elementary school teacher. He said that they made such an impact in his life, and they are still close to this day. For instance, in December Agate and his family will be vacationing with the Metzler’s at their home in Hawaii.
“I was in college, and I said to him, you guys have done so much for me,” Agate recalled telling Walter. “I don’t know how to repay you. And he says we haven’t done anything. We’ve learned so much from you. And he goes, if you feel that we’ve done so much for you, do it for other kids.”
Walter took Agate out of his remedial class and placed him in college prep classes, which Agate noted made such a difference in his life. He noted that educators can impact students in more ways than they will ever know.
Another lesson Agate said he learned throughout his life and in transportation is knowing and understating the dynamics of the customers that transportation serves. “I have external customers, which are the students and the parents, and internal customers, which are the principals and administrators,” Agate said. “And the importance of those two sets of customers need to be treated differently. If you can maneuver and skillfully understand each time which customer you are speaking to, or dealing with, and how to serve their needs the best you can, that makes your life a whole lot easier. The biggest lesson I learned is to form allies with your internal customers.”
He said forming allies with internal customers is important because it will help with the external customers. Otherwise, he said, transportation could end up battling both sides.
Agate Throughout His Career
Agate was born in Jamaica. He grew up in Paterson, New Jersey and attended Westmar University in Le Mars, Iowa. “Talk about a culture shock,” Agate said. “Going from Paterson, New Jersey where we had I think 95,000 people per square mile into a small town in the Midwest. I think at the time, when college is in session, the population of the town doubled. It was a great experience there, that’s where I met my wife. And then we moved to Minnesota.”
Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, Agate worked at a software product development company. His job required constant flying, but after 9/11 he said travel fell by the wayside, causing him to look for a new career. He went into the mortgage business as a stopgap but was asked by a friend that same year to be the interim transportation director at Eden Prairie Schools. The director had just retired, and the district needed someone to come in while they focused on repositioning and reorganizing roles.
At the same time, he was coaching wrestling at nearby Hopkins Public Schools. When Eden Prairie finished its reorganizing, he said district officials realized Agate was taking the job seriously.
“They asked me if I wanted to apply for the position,” Agate said, adding that coming from the corporate world made him unsure of school transportation. “But I realized that my passion was working with kids, and this gave me that opportunity to be able to do that and not have to travel as much and be away from my family. … It felt like a good career move to do and that’s how I got in the industry.”
He said it eventually came out that he used to drive trucks and had previously earned his commercial driver’s license. He noted that at the time he didn’t realize the qualifications were like school bus driving. Plus, in college, he studied corporate management, which is managing a company within an organization. “My skills and education actually match being a transportation director,” Agate explained.
Agate became the interim director in November 2001 and then became the director of transportation in February 2022. He served as the director at Eden Prairie for seven years before becoming transportation supervisor at Hopkins, where he has been ever since.
Agate is also the past president of the Minnesota Association of Pupil Transportation, serving for four years. He added that to his understanding, he was the first black president in the organization’s history.
At the end of October, he was awarded the Minnesota Wrestling Coaches Association Lifetime Achievement Award for his 30-plus years of dedication and service to wrestling at Hopkins. During this time, he hired the first female assistant varsity wrestling coach in the school, and Agate said probably the state. He added that the athletic director could not find another female varsity assistant wrestling coach who coached at the state tournament.
Additionally, Agate said he is proud of growing the state train-the-trainer seminar, from a little over 100 attendees to 500 attendees in 2019. “I look at that as a huge accomplishment,” Agate said, adding that it embodies a quote he read that stuck with him. “Part of my belief is, what’s worse than training your employee and having them leave, is not training them and having them stay. It hurts an organization not to train your people and invest in them, it makes them feel more important. And furthermore, it brings to your organization a higher level of knowledge and efficiency. So, I’ve always believed in an organization training and investing in their staff.”
Through his 20-year career in transportation, he has advocated for kids. He said he started fighting for kids who didn’t have a voice after the Metzlers took him in as their own.
At Eden Prairie he said they were having challenges on certain buses, resulting in lots of suspensions and write-ups from students of color. “It was like things like they didn’t sit down, or they wouldn’t listen, and I saw a pattern,” Agate said, adding that if these kids didn’t get on the school bus, they couldn’t get to school and thus will miss out on education. “So, I started analyzing and asking for data in our district. The most challenging part was being an advocate for kids, and it wasn’t just kids of color, I saw that happening for a certain socioeconomic level.”
He added that the situation didn’t feel right to him, and he decided to do something about it. He said he worked to eliminate the barrier by better training drivers. He noted that a lot of the write-ups said kids were being loud. However, he noted that loud is subjective.
“That was the toughest thing in my entire career,” Agate said. “In the private sector, and in the public sector it was being an advocate for change and then fighting and then having resistance, that was unbelievable.”
He said he wanted to make a difference in kids’ lives like Walter and Georgia did for him. “Each day, what motivates me is how can I make a positive impact on students,” Agate explained. “How can new technology help us in the industry for student management? I’m excited to see what the next evolution of our industry is going to be.”
He noted that things are going to evolve, and it may get worse, for instance, the driver shortage, before it gets better. He noted that currently, he’s working with a visionary superintendent who wants her employees to reimagine how the school is operated.
“I want to see how we can do that because we’ve been doing bussing in our industry the same way forever. And can we ever reimagine it differently? And I think we can,” he said. “I mean, look at this year. I’m using more Type III vehicles for our special needs students right now because we generally don’t have as many of them on a bus. And in Minnesota, you don’t need a CDL for that. A Type III driver is easier to get someone in, and it’s easier to maintain.”
He added that he also worked with a school principal several years ago to reduce student expulsions in that district. He noted that expulsion was expensive and devasting for the students. He said they worked together to find other ways to transport these students to educational services.
“Those are the things that excite me when you can find creative ways and work with other leaders,” Agate said. “That’s why I said before, my internal customers are different than my external customers.”