Kristin Persu is no stranger to change. Between routing challenges and ensuring students with special needs receive the care and transportation they require during COVID-19, plus running the contract for one of the largest school districts in the U.S., her hands are always full.
One of 10 Rising Stars featured in the October magazine issue of School Transportation News, grew up understanding the rigors of the job. Her father was a co-owner of a transportation business in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which consisted of taxis, limousines and paratransit vehicles. The business didn’t operate any school transportation, and Persu recalled that the company was unable to compete with Uber’s model of providing on-demand ride-share service. Her father closed his business in 2015.
“It kind of opened my eyes, just making sure you’re being innovative,” she recalled. “You’re adapting along with the technology. You don’t get stuck in one way of doing something. Change is scary, but change is good.”
Persu ended up interviewing with SCR Medical Transportation, which she said was a good fit from the beginning. “When I went in there for an interview, it didn’t feel like an interview,” she shared. “It felt like a really long conversation. I think I was there for like three hours.”
At the time, she said SCR Transportation was focused on non-emergency medical transportation as well as contracts for transporting students with disabilities with Chicago Public Schools for paratransit service via small vehicles and minivans. The former was her assignment when she was hired in February 2016. However, three months later she was working on the contract for Chicago Public Schools. She explained it was an interesting transition as she was instructed to just jump right in.
“Through trial and error, I’ve kind of figured out how to run that operation,” she said, adding that she’s not afraid of changing something that’s not working. “I’ll try a bunch of different stuff until I feel like this is the right fit. I remember one school year I put my dispatchers on split shifts because I was like they don’t do anything after the [morning] runs.”
She noted that by using this method, SCR Transportation needed fewer dispatchers, resulting in more staff being allocated to work in operations.
During COVID-19, however, she noted everything changed. Chicago Public Schools, like all schools nationwide, shut down, and Persu said SCR Transportation started delivering lunches instead of students. At the time, she was also managing Medicaid work for a local medical center. That contract ended in June 2020.
“Then all of a sudden I wasn’t operating hardly anything,” she said. “And that was a very tough time for me because I was like, ‘How am I useful right now?’” she remembered, adding the company also had to lay a lot of people off. “We kept our Chicago Public Schools employees, the drivers and the bus aides, and CPS was giving us some supplemental funding to pay the employees to keep them around for whenever school opened back up. I was able to keep them on payroll.”
But the rest of SCRs staff essentially had nothing else to do.
“We didn’t have any revenue coming in,” Persu noted. “So, we really depleted [our staff] and got the department down to me and about two other people.”
She added that schools started to reopen in August 2020 and SCR started to run non-public school transportation. “Then it was really a tough transition, into really operating again,” she said.
Persu explained that the company had to hire back dispatchers and basically reset all operations. “I’ll tell you it’s just been a very strange transition going post-COVID, but we’ve been pretty adaptive,” she said.
She added that the driving demographics have also changed since COVID-19. The company used to primarily attract semi-retired people who don’t mind working a few hours a day. Today, it’s getting 20-year-old applicants and single parents that want 40 hours a week.
Persu noted that she’s working on building up her driver hours and incorporating that into the contract, so that they can do trips in between their morning and afternoon routes. She said giving drivers the option to work more hours and sign up for Saturday work has helped retain employees.
She noted with the “Great Resignation” it has become more important now than ever to treat employees right and make sure they are getting what they want out of their work. She noted that if a driver tells her they’re short hours, she figures out a way to get them on the schedule.
“Retention is a big thing right now,” she added.
Last September, SCR was acquired by Beacon Mobility, which has become the fourth largest school transportation contractor in the U.S. Persu remained the director of school operations for Chicago Public Schools.
At the start of the 2021-2022 school year, she said she only had 76 drivers for the 92 CPS bus routes. She said she had to pull apart routes, plan them differently, and remain in near constant contact with parents to apologize about late buses.
She said the company overcame that hurdle by late October and had enough drivers for all routes. Persu noted SCR was hiring nonstop from a flood of new applicants. “We got to a point in February where I was out of vehicles,” she said, adding that many were sitting in the shop awaiting parts. After a complete reevaluation of the maintenance department, that challenge has also been overcome.
This school year, the company started with 170 routes but expects to reach 200 soon. “My goal for the school year is to get to 250 [routes],” she said, adding that the most run for CPS is 150. “I’m very optimistic we can do it. I just need to make sure my team is ready too, it’s not just me.”
She said overall she has a personal relationship with the parents, and because they transport medically fragile students, Persu said she’s always on the phone. If something comes up, she and her staff are able to fix it quickly.
Related: Chicago School Bus Driver Shortage Worries Parents as School Startup Looms
Related: 2,100 Chicago Public Schools Students Without Rides Amid Bus Driver Shortage
Related: 2022 Rising SuperStars in School Transportation Announced
Related: Dallas ISD Transportation Employees Save Children from Flood Waters
Related: Retired Owner, President of Western Bus Sales in Oregon Dies
She noted that as Beacon Mobility grows, she wants to do more school transportation, whatever that might be, either in Chicago or regionally. “I’m not exactly sure what that looks like, but I would really like to do more,” she said. “Because what’s also important to me is the number of students we can help get to school every day.”
She noted that transportation plays a critical role in student education because, without transportation some of these students wouldn’t make it to school. “We need to make sure they get there safely and on time,” she said, adding that the 2021-2022 school year was challenging because there weren’t enough drivers to transport every student to school.
“Nothing’s perfect,” Persu acknowledged. “Things come up, and things happen. But as long as we respond the right way, that’s what’s important. I want to make sure we take care of our employees so that they take care of the students.”
She noted that while she doesn’t know what the future holds, she knows she will continue to help children, which is something that was a priority at SCR and now across all of Beacon Mobility. She noted that long-term relationships SCR and Beacon forge with Chicago Public School students begin when the children with disabilities are as young as 3 years old and continue till they age out of special education services at 21. Upon graduation, service often continues via the company’s paratransit service, to help them for the rest of their lives with their jobs and everyday needs.
“It’s more about making sure that we’re always there to help people that otherwise don’t have a way of getting around,” she said. “I can jump on a bus or train but that’s not the case for all of our population.”