What makes a leader stand out? As School Transportation News spoke with each of the four superintendents nominated for this year’s top award, which was scheduled to be awarded virtually on Thursday, traits of compassion, relationship-building, and staff growth stood out.
While 2020 and now 2021 have been far from ordinary years, leaders have been forced to think outside of the box and encourage their staff to do the same. Some schools still remain in virtual learning as the community rate of the COVID-19 virus remains too high to reopen schools. Yet that hasn’t stopped leaders from taking aspects of the pandemic and turning it into a learning experience.
Dr. Bryan Johnson, superintendent for Hamilton County Schools, located in Chattanooga, Tennessee, knows all too well about learning from past experiences. Hamilton County Schools was the district involved in the fatal Chattanooga school bus crash that resulted in the death of six students and the injury of two dozen others in 2016.
While Johnson wasn’t superintendent at the time, he said that crash affected everyone in the state. A Tennessee native, he was living just outside of Nashville when the crash happened. He said he remembers the incident vividly.
Johnson took over as Hamilton County superintendent the following summer. The district has since partnered with a new school bus contractor and is continuing to work toward improving transportation operations. By the end of this month, the district is open for in-person education to all K-12 students.
“And I think the lessons learned really helped to drive what we set as expectations for the providers that were bidding on for the contracts,” Johnson said. “And it really helped to set a really clear expectation, with safety protocols and the student’s experience on the bus in regard to what we want in our transportation services and how it supports schools.”
When Johnson joined Hamilton County in July 2017, the district didn’t have a chief operations officer, which oversees transportation services. Johnson assumed that role, which he said gave him a chance to fully absorb the function of transportation and understand the needs of the fleet, as well as what technology is needed to make the district more efficient and effective.
“My role is to really think about which levers we’re pulling to ultimately make sure that we’re one getting students to school safely, but then maximizing the on-bus routes and overall transportation experience,” Johnson said. “We’re proud of all the [changes] that we’ve made over the last couple of years and where transportation is headed in general.”
Johnson added that he would describe his leadership style as a “shared leadership,” in which the decision-making process is accomplished with as much input and information as possible. He said he believes in giving a voice to the students, parents, and staff who being served and trying to make quality decisions based on different stakeholders.
In the last three years, Johnson has grown the district from 130th to second in the state for student academic growth, which makes it the fastest improving school district in Tennessee. He also worked with community leaders and the school board to launch a 10-year commitment to providing high-speed internet to all 28,500 economically disadvantaged students in Hamilton county for free, in an attempt to close the digital divide.
“I think that there have been lessons learned from a sanitation and safety standpoint, from the standpoint of health and wellness and well-being,” he said while discussing COVID-19. “… We see the importance of providing access, and our transportation services are key for providing that access and will only increase opportunities for students to gain access going forward.”
By riding the buses occasionally, Johnson said he sees first-hand what the spacing looks like during COVID-19 and gauges the overall environment of the school bus. He said he wants parents to feel comfortable with all the safety elements that go into students returning to in-person education.
“In fact, we’ve been able to avert positive cases on the bus … I need to find a piece of wood to knock on because that’ll be the thing that transpires tomorrow,” Johnson said, adding that he contracted COVID-19 over Christmas break and had all the symptoms.
“I can speak from a standpoint of having had COVID-19, I can speak from a standpoint of being on our buses in the midst of a global pandemic,” he continued. “I can speak from a context standpoint of being in the classroom. So, all those things help you become more informed,” he said.
As the district takes the next steps, continued federal funding will help with intervention opportunities to provide more access and opportunities for students. Johnson said he and his staff know there are gaps that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Thus, he said, transportation will receive some of that funding as it’s a critical part of getting students to these programs.
“The most effective place is in front of a great teacher, and we’re going to have to be intentional about getting students to great teachers to have intervention opportunities,” Johnson said. “So, transportation will absolutely be a part of our budget and we’ll leverage funds to provide increased access.”
Speaking broadly, Johnson said he plans to continue to focus on literacy and intervention for students, as well as equity access, as Johnson wants every student to have what they need to be successful.
“We will expand a palette of student success plans which are individual education plans in essence to provide support for students. Then we have some pretty robust facility needs and so we’ll continue down the road of working a capital plan and trying to make sure the students are in phenomenal learning environments and are positioned for success,” Johnson explained. “So, we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us to do but having access to all of those things becomes really important, so transportation is the link to making it happen. … Everybody in our district plays an integral role in the success of a child and if we can’t get the children to the great teachers that are in schools then having the school and having a great lesson becomes a moot point.
“So, it takes all of the areas of our school system to really make [students] successful and transportation is obviously critical.”
Extreme Collaboration Humanistic Leadership
For over 20 years, Dr. Khalid Mumin has served in various school capacities as a teacher, dean of students and central administrator.
As superintendent for Reading School District near Philadelphia for the past six years, he has come to believe in extreme collaboration and understanding the humanistic core values of his personnel that he serves alongside.
“The community and kids are responsible for leading me through this educational journey,” Mumin said. “I think anyone would say that I’m a leader of influence and very visionary. I have some of the highest quality of staff that really are able to take these ideas and make them come to life, especially in a timely manner.”
He said in addition to providing the visionary behind the programming, his role is making sure it works from a fiscal standpoint. “That not only that our costs are aligned with being efficient in providing access for our children but also our strategic plan and values are taken into account when addressing our student’s needs,” Mumin explained. “So, I’m there from the visionary standpoint, in the oversight of what we budget for transportation, and in what we receive in return.”
Currently, Reading is transporting out-of-district students to specialized schools, including those focused on serving special needs. He said school reopening likely won’t happen until spring, but there have been many conversations around expanding summer learning programs, and transportation would play a big role.
“I know that education is going to look very different post-COVID-19,” Mumin said. “There are a lot of good things, as well as a lot of challenges that have been presented throughout this pandemic.”
One of those good things, Mumin noted, has been the district’s online learning options, which will continue to be utilized after the pandemic. This, he said, will allow Reading to offer flexible options for student learning, which would entail not just an in-person structured learning style.
“This may entail a schedule where there’s more activity with transportation throughout the day, as we’ll be able to look at hybrid types of options for how we move forward in the Reading School District,” he shared.
He added that Reading School District is one of the largest school districts in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the ultimate goal is for the schools to operate as a system of schools, not merely a school system.
“[This] means that there will be opportunities for us to individualize specific programming and pedagogy and curriculum for students, whereas there will be more fluid movement throughout the school day, which then entails the collaboration and connectivity with transportation,” Mumin said, adding that a school district is like the human body and that every department is a piece that relies on each other.
Mumin added that because transportation is one of those pieces, his strategic plan especially includes it as part of the district’s fiscal responsibility goals. “So, there’s no way that we can shift programming, for example, go into a hybrid flexible schedule without including transportation, or our kids will be subjected to walking across the school district to the school. It just doesn’t work. All of these pieces and organisms work together.”
The district is currently working on its budget for the next year. He said transportation is typically budgeted through the district’s basic education fund, but he added reimbursements do occur for specialized transportation needs. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds were distributed into the basic education fund and then dispersed amongst the curriculums.
Because Reading School District is looking at how to deliver summer learning options, and transportation will play a large role, additional funding will be provided for transportation. “We will have to investigate and analyze our transportation needs because this is not something that is mandatory or required for all students, but it will be made available for all students,” Mumin said. “Meaning that if 18 or all 18,000 students opted into a summer option, transportation would be running. Similar to how we would run during the school year.”
Going forward, Mumin said he is looking to adjust to the new normal, or as he and his colleagues call it, the “reimaging of education after the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“I envision that it is … going to include a lot more technology initiatives, because we’ve had a trial period of over a year or close to a year of using the technology exclusively,” Mumin said. “I can imagine there’s going to be a great success with being able to use that technology that coalesces with good in class quality instruction, a true hybrid type of delivery system. That’s exciting.”
Another big push, Mumin said, is the district’s policy on equity and access to opportunities. During the pandemic, the district transitioned to a one-to-one district, meaning that every student is provided with a device, which was a great accomplishment, Mumin shared.
“Tomorrow is not yesterday, there’s always a chance to make a better future,” he concluded. “We have got to stay focused on this thing that we’re dealing with now, these tough times. But guess what? We’ll be back to normal again but the new normal isn’t going to look the same as in the past. Look to the future with a new vision, tomorrow’s not yesterday.”
Superintendent Christy Perry of Salem-Keizer Public Schools, located south of Portland, Oregon, said she prefers to operate on a leadership style dependent upon building relationships.
“I have a high capacity for needing to know details, while at the same time working really hard to empower my staff to do their work because there’s so many,” explained Perry, who has been a superintendent for the past 17 years. “I like to know the details because I like to be sure that things are moving in the right direction, and I think it helps me be a better leader.”
When reviewing transportation operations, she said she supports by both encouraging the system to perform in ways that are best for the kids and recognizing there are some inhibiting factors at times. She explained that while Salem-Keizer is the second-largest district in the state in terms of student enrollment, it operates across the largest geographic area. She said the district’s size plays a role when talking about what transportation can and can’t do.
“Knowing the pushes and pulls on a transportation system, that’s me getting into the weeds sometimes, but it only helps me support them and helps me talk about it in a way that doesn’t diminish the really great work that our transportation system and our drivers are doing,” Perry said. “I try to be present with them.”
Salem-Keizer is still focusing on building its new transportation facility, which Perry said is going to be key, as transportation has been inhibited in what they can accomplish in their current facility. She said because of COVID-19, transportation staff has had to think differently, which is going to transition into different opportunities for the department and how the district serves students post COVID-19.
“They’ve been instrumental in delivering lunches, I think they go to between 50 and 60 sites every day with buses, and their drivers have helped with bag packing for distribution,” Perry explained. “And so, while those things likely won’t continue post-COVID-19 — maybe a little bit of that will — but the creativity around the hybrid bus routes and limited in-person instruction and how we’re handling that, I think will.”
She said transportation for the first time implemented rider registration this year, to better streamline routing and allow transportation to expand to more grades, depending on sign-ups.
One of Perry’s priorities amid COVID-19 has been vaccine distribution. She worked in close partnership with the Marion County Public Health and Salem Health to make the vaccine available to all district staff. “I knew that for our district that it would give one more layer of protection, one more layer to feel ready to come back to school,” Perry said.
Any district employee was able to opt-in, anonymously, to take the COVID-19 vaccine. “When it comes to transportation when we are talking about our employees that are on the front lines bus drivers are one of them,” Perry said. “… I don’t forget about bus drivers, I don’t forget about custodians. And we even got some bus drivers approved for the 1A group because they transport our medically fragile kids, so they were a higher priority even within the state metric.”
For the upcoming school year, Perry said she is focused on getting all students back to in-person classes via a hybrid model. She’s also focused on reopening career technical education centers, which transportation will play a huge role in serving. And finally, as she looks towards the 2021-2022 school year, she hopes people will start talking about lessons learned from COVID-19.
“How did it make us better, and what practices need to persist beyond COVID-19? We can’t lose the benefits of what we have learned through innovation and emergency. I think there are lots we’ve learned about — how we show up for our kids and our families, and how we all work together as one team — that we can’t lose post-COVID-19,” Perry explained. “As we get kids back into hybrid [learning] then we can pick up our heads and start really thinking about what did we learn and what should last well beyond COVID-19, and what are the things we should never go back to.”
Collaborative, Inclusive Leadership
Dr. Michelle Reid recalled times when she ride the school bus and witnessed how much drivers care for their students.
“I’m always inspired by our drivers who know not just the names of the students they’re picking up, but also the names of their pets. They know the names of their family members,” said Reid, the superintendent of the North Shore School District, located northeast of Seattle. “And they set a really important tone for us. From the moment a child gets on a school bus in the morning.”
Reid said transportation has been a big part of her district’s mission. “And we consider ourselves one large district family and we call it our house,” Reid said, adding that transportation plays a key role in transporting students to and from school.
While Reid said only a small number of students that require special education support services are attending classes in-person during COVID-19, transportation is playing a role in distributing library books, meals and school materials. She added that transportation also plays a role in the district’s strong commitment to racial and educational justice as transportation serves all families in both good and challenging times.
She said during the “downtime” of transporting students, bus drivers have transitioned into other roles within the district, including working with technical support and delivering computer devices to students and families.
As the district looks toward an eventual end to COVID-19 closures, Reid said transportation will set the tone for students and families.
“I think in this current COVID-19 and post COVID-19 world, making sure that our buses are healthy and safe [is most important.] I know we’ll be disinfecting buses. We already are in different ways than we were before. We’re using technologies to make sure we have correct students on the buses,” Reid explained, adding that health and safety have shifted dramatically in terms of social distancing practices and transporting fewer students at a time.
In order to achieve adequate social distancing, transportation purchased an additional 10 buses. It also purchased My Stop, a mobile app by Tyler Technologies, to provide information to parents on the estimated arrival time of school buses. Reid said the technology gives another layer of security for students and drivers, as it tracks when buses are running late and gives updates to parents if weather challenges occur.
The district is also committed to reducing its carbon footprint and has purchased several propane buses via a grant. Reid said her staff is also looking more closely at routing to maximize carbon fuels, to maintain as green of a footprint as possible.
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Reid added that the district received a total of $500,000 in CARES Act dollars, however, it has already spent $1.4 million on cleaning supplies, PPE and preparations for returning to school. She said she hopes more funding will be able to backfill what has already spent.
At the end of the day, she said she wants to make sure the appropriate amount of personal protective equipment, as well as cleaning supplies, is available to transportation so they can continue with the same high-quality service that the transportation department has always provided.
“I think they’ve been superheroes throughout this pandemic because they’ve continued to deliver essential food supplies and library books and those things that keep our community connected,” she said.