HomeSpecial NeedsSweet Carolyn a Special Needs Transporter Extraordinaire

Sweet Carolyn a Special Needs Transporter Extraordinaire

Minneapolis Public Schools special transportation supervisor unassumingly, efficiently wins 4th Annual Peter J. Grandolfo Memorial Award of Excellence

Carolyn Oakes never met Peter Grandolfo, but the two sure had a lot in common.

Both are Midwesterners, living and working only about a five- or six-hour drive, or a quick flight, away from each other. Grandolfo, who passed away suddenly on Jan. 22, 2006, was the long-time transportation director at Chicago Public Schools and later in his career enjoyed managing the transportation for students with cognitive disabilities, ages 14 through 22, at Chicago’s Northside Learning Center. He was an NAPT board member, renowned speaker at state and national pupil transportation conferences and author of countless articles on the intricacies of transporting students with disabilities.

Meanwhile, Oakes has led a quieter yet just as busy life as special transportation supervisor for Minneapolis Public Schools and her nearly 40-year career in student transportation. In her words, she juggles a complex special needs operation that consists of 1,300 bus runs a day for the 3,000 students with disabilities. It would not be a stretch to say that she has flown under the radar and probably has been under appreciated over the years. But in speaking with her, you can see the passion she has for her job and how her smile can light up a room. You get the feeling deep down she wouldn’t have it any other way.

Pupil transportation has definitely been a lifelong love for Oakes, who began her career as a school bus driver at 18 years of age. After graduating from the University of Minnesota with a degree in clothing design, she realized that her union school bus driver wage was much better than if she remained in the clothing business. After a year and a half stint in public para transit at Columbia Transit in White Bear, Minn., she returned to the school district and rose the ranks as a dispatcher, scheduler, driver trainer and safety trainer. For the last 13 years, she has served as the special needs operations manager in Minneapolis.

She is responsible for five tiers of special ed routes each morning and another five in the afternoon. She also supervises nearly 200 special education assistants, para-professionals who work in the classroom and also ride in the bus with students to and from their various programs.

“It’s a great way of managing the kids because not only do [the special ed assistants] know the kids but they know what the students’ IEPs say and what techniques their teachers use,” Oakes added. “So it provides a lot of continuity with the school day.”

So, in this economy, attending the STN EXPO armed Oakes with additional ammunition necessary to make operations as efficient as possible. Last school year, she was forced to cut 20 bus routes via reorganization, which saved the school district $1.3 million. She also is leading the special transportation with three fewer staff members this year. Her special ed routes scheduler moved over to a regular ed position, and her new routing specialist just came over from dispatch.

“Like many of you, I work unending hours. I juggle hundreds of task, and I choose to do this with passion,” Oakes told about 500 STN EXPO attendees in her award acceptance speech during the Thomas Built Buses breakfast general session on July 27. “I enjoy the complexity of routing special transportation. It is a huge puzzle where all 1,300 bus runs must fit together in time and distance.

“I enjoy the creative problem solving process,” she said, adding that receiving the award was a highlight of her career. “As I implement ‘plan A,’ I usually have ‘plan B and C’ in mind. I enjoy finding solutions for parents and school staff.”

It was Oakes’ first visit to Reno and the STN EXPO, and it was her first appearance over the last several years at any industry conference. She used the Peter J. Grandolfo Memorial Award sponsored by Sure-Lok to attend the National Exhibition on Transporting Students with Special Needs and Preschoolers but budget cuts took their toll. And she also took home a nice plaque.

“I don’t want to be out of the loop any longer because what you learn there is state of the art, the state of the industry. You get the most current info,” she said recently from her office. “Well, I got a lot of that info out of your office because I generally took the special ed classes. There are many of the same instructors. In the format you had I had more of a chance to talk to them personally.”

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