While the current national spotlight on race relations shines on the lawsuit hovering over the National Football League alleging its failure to hire black head coaches and general managers, and President Joe Biden announcing his intent to appoint a black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court, a group of industry professionals whose shared craft may be of more immediate importance because it entails the safety of children recently discussed their own experiences in commemoration of Black History Month.
They said that gaining and maintaining a foothold in the industry’s hierarchy is fraught with the same perils for black people as any other profession. It also comes with the same rewards for those who stick it out.
Spared the Jim Crow influences of the 1950s and 1960s of student transportation that limited drivers to transporting students of their own race, as recounted in an stnonline.com article last month about a white transportation director’s fight against such practices, and devoid of degrading experiences such as the one shared by in a recent School Transportation Nation Podcast by Derrick Agate, a now-retired transportation supervisor in Minnesota, who was once greeted at work by a toy gorilla hung outside his office door with a noose around its neck, these latter-day beneficiaries took their cues from their forerunners upon whose shoulders they now stand to view a promising horizon.
“I absolutely agree that I am standing on someone’s shoulders,” commented Nicole Portee, the newly appointed assistant superintendent of operations for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina. “I appreciate the folks that came before me for taking a stand and paving the way for me. They refused to settle and be content with the status quo. There is still work to be done.”
Portee’s comment reflects a recent telling statistic brought out in the Agate podcast that in an industry that “traditionally has not been very welcoming to people of color,” only 8.6 percent of school bus drivers are black, even with the trailblazing efforts and sacrifices of leaders such as Agate.
Portee and others still experience conditions like what Agate waded through during his tenure as a transportation supervisor at Hopkins School District and even as the state’s first black president of the Minnesota Association for Pupil Transportation. Many times, they are the only black person not to mention female in the room, and except in rare instances, it was a white male or female that hired and supported them in their current positions, instead of treating them as a token presence. A white man hired Agate, for example. Race, gender and mentorship are the elephants that populate the rooms black student transporters find themselves in when they gather with their colleagues.
Portee has had a stellar career in student transportation, most of which was spent at Denver Public Schools, where she honed her supervisory skills, first as a terminal manager and then as the executive director for transportation. Portee’s efforts eventually earned her honors when she was named the 2018 Transportation Director of the Year by School Transportation News.
As a terminal manager with DPS, Portee supervised more than 200 drivers, bus assistants and fleet maintenance personnel. “I was the only African American female in the transportation department and at the time, I was the lowest-paid supervisor and had to work twice as hard to prove my skills and abilities,” Portee recalled. “There weren’t any other women in a management role at the time.”
Portee said while she recalled no overt resistance to her presence, she did remember the inappropriate discussions encouraged by the male-based culture. “I wouldn’t say resistance showed up in operations, but it did when I wanted to present ideas and make sure my voice was heard and that my opinion counted,” she explained.
When she started in student transportation, Portee said she didn’t see anyone that looked like her. “Whether it was at local conferences, meetings or national conferences, oftentimes I stood out,” she recalled. “A lot of my speed bumps sometimes were being the only black and the only female. When I started my career as executive director, in meetings and different settings, if I was with my male employees, it was presumed they were the leaders. When it became known that I was the executive director, it was a shock.”
Greg Jackson, executive director for transportation and fleet services at Jeffco Public Schools in Lakewood, Colorado, was a colleague of Portee’s at DPS, where he studied student transportation under some impressive leadership before moving to the Boulder Valley School District as a general manager and then to his current position. He doesn’t plan to rest on his laurels there.
“The next step for me is to pursue a chief operating officer position,” said Jackson, who was selected as the STN Transportation Director of the Year immediately following Portee’s recognition. “If not here, then in another district.”
Jackson came from outside the student transportation industry and started at DPS as a driver supervisor. “People said I was qualified to do more, but I wanted to learn the business because I was an outsider,” he said. “I wanted to learn what pupil transportation was all about because I wanted to determine if this would be a long-term career move.”
Jackson said that when Portee arrived at DPS, all the people in upper leadership positions were ex-military because the director at the time was a former military officer. “He brought in people who looked like him and had the same focus,” Jackson said. “They were all white males, and one was Hispanic.”
Jackson said he observed no racial issues at DPS because it had the highest population in Colorado of people of all colors. “Transportation, nutrition services, custodial services, construction and facilities are more of a melting pot,” he said.
Conversely, however, the instructional side did not represent the ethnicity of the students, and Jackson compared the culture to that of the NFL that has a majority of black players but no current black team owners.
Jackson said Boulder Valley was different. Despite the district celebrating inclusion, few if any of his new peers looked like him. “Boulder was a place where you had to do a lot of educating people as to who and what an African American male is and what the African American way of life is,” Jackson explained, adding that he received full support from his mentor, Bob Young, a white transportation director.
Jackson said Young allowed him to expand his responsibilities, grow in the position, and do things his own way. “He opened the door for me in Boulder to learning more about the educational side of things,” Jackson said. “Our COO Robert Hammond was an individual that was happy to allow me to explore these other areas. So, I had a pathway to not only learn what was happening on my side, but to learn and understand what was happening on the instructional side.”
Jackson hinted that while race is an omnipresent issue, he does not allow it to cloud his focus and said that politics of position can be just as bad.
“When I think about race, you have individuals that think people are not the same. I can be as educated as they [are], and I can be doing a great job, but I still would have to qualify that,” Jackson explained. “I’m not an administrator, I’m a Black administrator. Why do I have to have that title? One thing that helped me moving from Boulder to Jeffco, I learned more about that side of it.”
Portee and Jackson are from the same supervisory tree in DPS. At the top branch is Pauline Gervais, a long-time transportation guru and a tenured faculty member of the Transporting Students with Disabilities and Special Needs (TSD) Conference. Jackson and Portee said that when Gervais took over leadership of the DPS transportation department, she opened their eyes to new possibilities and encouraged them to pursue them.
“That’s when I began to learn what else was out there in pupil transportation,’ Jackson said. “She was one of my first allies. She set a fire under me to get away from being complacent and challenge myself to pursue goals and work to the potential level where I should be. Pauline opened up the doors for me to see what was there, she helped me see there is more in pupil transportation that what was in DPS.”
It so happened that Gervais sent Jackson to a state conference where he met Young at Boulder Valley. It was after Young offered Jackson the general manager position at Boulder Valley that the protégé decided to make a career of student transportation.
Portee said Gervais was breaking barriers of her own by becoming the first female executive director for transportation.
“She left DPS to further her career, but she returned and took me under her wing and trained me and became a voice for me,” Portee recalled. “That’s when I learned I was the lowest-paid supervisor. She felt like I exemplified the skills to move into more of a leadership role. She felt I was devalued based on being an African American woman. Pauline experienced something similar without the color component. We talked about it because it was sexism and classism. That environment existed in the department, but it wasn’t something that people really talked about. It was the elephant in the room.
“Pauline was not afraid to evoke change and pave the way for other women in the school bus transportation industry,” Portee continued. “She paved the way to create space and opportunity for me to achieve my goal to become a leader in the school bus transportation industry.”
Robyn Owens, the transportation supervisor at Pittsburg Unified School District in northern California’s Bay Area, said her ultimate goal is a transportation director’s job. She began 25 years ago in the district as a driver while she was still in college.
“I’ve done every position in transportation, bus aide, dispatcher, instructor, driver, now transportation supervisor, she said. “Yes, being a director is my ultimate goal.”
Owens, who was included in the School Transportation News “Rising Stars” profiles last October, said her biggest obstacles were self-imposed fear and the pursuit of perfection. “As an African American woman, I thought everyone would expect perfection from me,” she reflected. “I had to realize I am not perfect, but I will do my very best. I’m hard on myself because I do expect to be perfect and I’m not.”
Owens said she was also wary of the judgment from others and fears the unknown. “I feared the judgment from others because when I went to a California State Department of Education School Bus Driver Instructor Class in 2015 in Sacramento, I was the only African American woman there and the only African American person,” she recalled. “I was scared and nervous. I felt I had to do my very best. I knew my boss believed in me because the district sent me, and they were counting on me.”
Meanwhile, Francine Furby, transportation director for Fairfax County School District in Virginia, has been in student transportation for 27 years. She started in the industry by working part-time during her senior year in high school. She began her transportation management career as an assistant director in neighboring Loudon County. Furby was gracious in her assessment of obstacles she has encountered and presented a philosophical view.
“I think in this line of business there is opposition from different sources for different reasons,” she explained. “In supervising employees, you get a certain amount of push back at times. It could come from employees or parents. I looked at it as being an authority figure.” She did refer to one occasion when she was promoted over two white coworkers who were dissatisfied.
Herbert Byrd, assistant director of student transportation for Chesapeake Public Schools in Virginia and the son of a former bus shop supervisor, worked as the transportation director at a private school before coming to Chesapeake. He said leadership makes the difference.
“Right now, I could approach my current director and say I have a plan that I think will work and he will listen to my plan,” Byrd said. “My director has never just quashed my ideas. My years at Chesapeake have been so pleasant because of that.”
Byrd added that the assistant superintendent they report to is also a strong advocate. “Our boss is phenomenal. She will fight like hell for transportation. We are fortunate that we have a boss we can go to and discuss ideas,” Byrd said. “That makes a world of difference. When you get a good boss, it just changes things. Under their leadership, I have been able to grow.”
Byrd said he has not noticed any obstacles based on race but admits he doesn’t look for them. “Sometimes I put blinders on,” Byrd said. “I look at it as, if you work hard enough for what you want, you can make it happen. If you work hard and stop complaining and work toward what you want, life will get a lot easier for you.”
That is exactly what Jim Ellis did on his way to becoming director of pupil transportation for Henrico County Schools in Virginia. Ellis began driving a school bus while in high school and continued in college, when he was hired by the African American transportation director for North Carolina’s Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, Al Hogan, an early mentor. Ellis eventually became the transportation director there before moving north to Henrico County.
“I can’t say I had many obstacles getting to this point as a director, but it was a 15-year journey acquiring the knowledge,” explained Ellis, who was is also a past president of the North Carolina Association for Pupil Transportation. “I put in the work and learned every facet of transportation.”
Editor’s note: An original version of this article indicated Ellis was the first president of the state association. That feat was accomplished in 2012 by Charles McDowell, who was the director of Moore County Schools. Ellis served as McDowell’s vice president and became president a year later, followed by Vec Dunn at Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Schools in 2015.
Ellis said Black History Month means even more to him because of family members who were pioneers in the Civil Rights Movement. “My dad wrote a letter to the Tampa Tribune in the early 1960s alleging discrimination in hiring practices and denial of civil rights. His family asked him to leave Florida due to rumors of reprisals from local white shopkeepers,” Ellis relayed. “He was also instrumental in establishing a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Prayer Breakfast in my hometown of Black Mountain, North Carolina. He served as secretary of the committee. The committee held [its] first breakfast in 1994. He was honored for his work posthumously in 2005.”
Ellis also noted that his wife Karol Harshaw-Ellis was the first black graduate at Duke University to receive a doctorate in nursing practice. She is currently the director of outreach for the Duke University Advanced Heart Failure Program.
Portee, meanwhile, shared that Black History means being unafraid, unapologetic and recognizing the legacy of Black Excellence. “It is a daily reminder and reflection when I look in the mirror of the struggle, achievements and accomplishments of an entire race of people,” she said. “Black pioneers who paved the way for me to raise the bar, disrupt systems, to promote change. Black history is a reminder of all who demonstrated self-confidence knowing they belonged, knowing they mattered, and having a strong belief that their sacrifices — and there were many — contributed to pave the way for future generations.”
Furby added, “One way we honor Black History Month is by recognizing the achievements of African Americans and their contributions to our country. They paved the way for us.”
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