HomeSpecial ReportsAt These School Districts, Investing in Transportation Team Members Provides Results

At These School Districts, Investing in Transportation Team Members Provides Results

Recruiting and retaining good employees is an ongoing challenge for any industry, and it is especially vital to student transportation operations. While there is no one solution to thi challenge, strategies exist that could lead to a thriving professional environment, which results in happier, more fulfilled employees as well as benefits to district leadership. One of these strategies is professional development training.

Bernando Brown, the director of student transportation at DeKalb County Schools in Georgia, became a school bus driver after retiring from the U.S. Army. While he received periodic refresher courses on the basics of student transportation, the training occurred once every other month and lasted only a couple of hours.

“I knew there was more, that we needed more,” he said.

At the time, he noted, the district didn’t have a proactive plan in place to assist drivers with obtaining certifications or sending staff members to conferences where they could expand their professional knowledge. So, he decided he needed to invest in himself. Brown discussed further training opportunities with his director at the time, who pointed him to membership in the Georgia Association of Pupil Transportation and the National Association of Pupil Transportation (NAPT).

T.J. Crockett, director of transportation and fleet services at Salem-Keizer Public Schools in Oregon, said that he also utilizes state association training for his department. Crockett noted that it’s important “that trainings that are going on in our schools are adapted and made applicable to the bus environment.”

Salem-Keizer ensures training opportunities are made “accessible to drivers by providing pay for the full travel day, not simply for the hours spent in the classroom, and providing transportation to the site,” he continued. “We also offer, right now it’s not as formal as I’d like, opportunities for bus drivers to learn other positions such as training and routing. My goal is to create an ‘academy’ so that interested bus drivers can spend time learning all the facets of transportation so they can move up if interested.”

Brown was able to do just that at Dekalb with the Transportation Leadership Academy (TLA), which launched on Jan. 23, 2019. The program was originally designed to take two years to complete, but delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic extended the program through 2022. Brown said that he was impressed with the response when applications for the course first opened. The class size was originally set at 10 to 15 people, but it was increased to 20 to accommodate the demand.

While the pandemic caused some of the academy students to drop out for various reasons, Brown explained that the TLA was a worthwhile endeavor. Nine graduates were presented with a Dekalb County certificate of completion as well as a national certification through NAPT. He added that five of these graduates were promoted within thee transportation department, and he noted that the goals of the class were to provide a complete view of transportation operations and to strengthen resumes internally.

Brown shared that admittance into TLA required a thorough application and interview process, as he wanted to ensure that resources were being directed toward those who had a genuine desire and interest for continuing education and job promotion.

One of the TLA graduates is Nadine Henry, Dekalb’s operations manager of transportation services.

“The Leadership Academy was an unforgettable experience that gave me the tools and skills to become a more effective leader,” she said. “It emphasized the importance of maintaining a positive, optimistic attitude and taking responsibility for my actions. I learned about integrity, discipline, and following the chain of command. Additionally, I gained a better understanding of the importance of paying attention to details.”

She said that the program gave her valuable insights and connected her to a network of lasting relationships.

Another TLA graduate, April Adams, was the district’s assistant transportation supervisor. She shared her experience with the program, praising it as a life-changing opportunity.

“I’ve been with the school district for 24 years,” she said. “I have seen a lot of changes down through the years. Some were good, some were okay and then there was the one that changed my life. Going through the TLA program has afforded me the opportunity to obtain [an] administrative position in less than a year’s time. I think that all companies need to invest in their employees. If a company spends more time, resources and money on the employees they already have there will be a minimal turnover and happier workers.”

Bernando Brown addresses the graduates of the Transportation Leadership Academy (TLA) at the graduation ceremony (Photo courtesy of Bernando Brown)
Bernando Brown addresses the graduates of the Transportation Leadership Academy (TLA) at the graduation ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Bernando Brown.)

Brown said he has already discussed with district leadership relaunching the TLA and is looking forward to starting it soon. He also spoke about the importance of attending conferences and networking with other professionals in the industry, to not only find potential instructors but learn about other district’s retainment strategies.

One of his strategies to build a strong connected team at his district is to “champion growth within,” he said.

Crockett echoed this sentiment. “My goal with folks is to help them have the skills they need for the next step of their career, if that is with our district, some other transportation department, or another field entirely,” he said. “I never want someone to stay simply because they don’t think they have the skills to move on. We also find as we invest in people, they want to stay, even when other opportunities come along.”

The Salem-Keizer district in Oregon has also experienced upward development due to a focus on providing resources for staff members. “Our current manager, a number of supervisors, and most routers, trainers and dispatchers have successfully moved up, including into leadership positions for those teams,” said Crockett, noting that most of the transportation department year-round staff started as bus drivers.

He added that he looks to provide continued training specific to those new roles as they are filled internally.

When planning how to start professional development training, Brown advised starting discussions with the district superintendent, human resources department, and professional development department, if there is one. He added that once details and budget have been approved, which includes deciding if it trainees will be paid for their time and if training will occur outside of working hours, it is often possible to find course instructors within the organization.

Brown said that oftentimes transportation staff simply are not provided a big-picture view of operations and the effect on the other working parts of the school district. By finding instructors or speakers from within the district, there is a wealth of knowledge and perspective that can be gained, he said. He continued that by rotating through different divisions within transportation and the district, and having a variety of employees explain their roles, it allows for the employees being trained to understand the operations and administration side of things.

“You’d be surprised what resources you have right in your school district,” he said.

Meanwhile, Crockett listed examples of classes offered at his district that cover such topics as managing schedules and productivity, crucial conversations and intent based leadership.

Brown also noted that half the battle is knowing who to reach out to, so it’s important to identify who the right contact is within the district, when instructing on problem solving.

The Never-Ending Shortage

Both Brown and Crockett said they are still not fully staffed, but they both believe that employees who are well cared for and invested in will have an increased motivation to stay with the district.

“We’re not quite out of our driver shortage yet,” commented Crockett. “But we are the closest we have been in a long time, and I think the time we are taking with everyone in our department to ensure that they are ready for their job, whatever it is, is the difference.”

Crockett also discussed the importance of involving drivers and transportation staff in the professional development training planning process, to ensure their voices are heard and employees feel like they’re being trained on what they need to know. He said that a committee model means that they can get the information needed firsthand and creates “an opportunity for great conversations about the issues we see that may need to be addressed and get incredible partnership from our drivers on problem solving.

“We routinely ask and meet about what teams and individuals need to feel successful,” he continued, adding that the district is already starting to plan next year’s professional development training. “When we first started three years ago, it was very much a case of not being sure, but as we have continued to do this work, folks are starting to open up and have a better understanding of what they need and how to ask for it. I’m really excited for this next year.”

Brown concluded that a better trained employee makes the entire department better, and setting up staff for success starts with tracking highly qualified employees, developing highly qualified employees and retaining those employees.

“If your staff is having a great experience here, then that’s what they talk about, that’s what they share,” Brown noted. “That’s why they try to bring people in to be a part of it, because their experience overall outweighs some of the negative things going on.”

Related: The Crucial Role of Training in Professional Growth
Related: Equity, Diversity and Inclusion: A Plan for Improved Staff Recruitment, Retention
Related: I Need More Workforce Development!

Bernando Brown (far right), director of student transportation at DeKalb County Schools in Georgia, poses with the graduates of the Transportation Leadership Academy on Jan. 21, 2022 (Photo courtesy of Bernando Brown)
Bernando Brown (far right), director of student transportation at DeKalb County Schools in Georgia, poses with the graduates of the Transportation Leadership Academy on Jan. 21, 2022 (Photo courtesy of Bernando Brown)

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