School districts that need help to transport students who have special needs are turning to third-party services. Those services include traditional outsourcing and alternative contracting, such as ridesharing and logistics providers.
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There is definitely some disruption taking place through a convergence of old methods that are mixed with new methods for transporting this student population. Whichever way districts and families choose to go, there are continuous challenges of safely transporting students with the best care at the best cost possible.
“If a student lives out of the way or in a place we cannot get a bus, we will pay a parent to bring in a student.”
— Chris Rippy, Transportation Director
Logan County Schools in Kentucky
Traditional Contractor Invests in Long-Term Relationships
Dean Transportation, a Michigan-based contractor that specializes in special needs mobility, is deeply rooted in tradition. Kellie Dean shifted his career 33 years ago from a special education teacher and administrator at the Lansing School District, to an owner of the alternative transportation business that bears his family name.
“Driving a school bus doesn’t stop at obtaining a commercial driver’s license. It’s about preparing the drivers and attendants, who have just as much impact on students as teachers,” said Patrick Dean, vice president of business development and Kellie’s son. “Individuals who work with special needs students often have longevity in the industry, because they understand the impact they can make.”
Through a traditional contracting model, the company currently serves nearly 125 districts (many are in lower Michigan) and transports approximately 80,000 students daily using 1,500 buses. About 65 percent of its business focuses on special needs transportation, and the remainder focuses on general student populations through yellow bus routes.
With all of its growth, the company retains more of a “small company” feel, as expressed by stakeholders within communities, school districts and families.
“The quality of this company starts right at the top with Kellie Dean, who is devoted to the needs of children,” said Coni Sullivan, assistant superintendent of human resources and legal services at the Kent Intermediate School District in Grand Rapids, which has contracted with Dean Transportation since 2000. “You can see this dedication in the people who are hired and the standards set.”
Dean Transportation often replenishes its fleet of school buses with specialized equipment and wheelchair lifts. Tending to special needs students from ages three to the mid-20s, employees are trained extensively on all physical aspects of driving and caring for onboard passengers. That includes CPR, medical protocols and tracheostomy suction.
Autism now affects one in 59 children, and school transportation providers are increasingly required to properly interact with nonverbal students, using alternative means of communication. Dean Transportation was the first transportation company to seek out Michigan Autism Safety Training, which was developed in 2011 by the nonprofit organization Autism Alliance of Michigan. The face-to-face training that is delivered at the company’s local operations throughout Michigan last year, included nearly 2,000 drivers, attendants, monitors and its behind-the-scenes support staff.
“Bus drivers are some of the most familiar adults in a young child’s life, who may be associated with difficult transitions, and separation from a familiar place,” said Tammy Morris, chief program officer at Autism Alliance of Michigan. “For anxious students and parents, this means that students with autism could board a school bus and know that the company, driver and dispatcher, all have familiarity with the types of challenges that might occur on the bus.”
Alternate Solutions in Fast-Growing Areas
A growing number of school districts are turning to niche contractors that don’t own or operate special vehicles to transport special needs students. Instead, these alternative companies serve districts and students by subcontracting drivers in their personal vehicles, and interacting with them through logistics and ride-sharing platforms.
Littleton Public Schools quickly turned to two fairly new companies operating in Colorado—American Logistics Company (ALC) and HopSkipDrive—to transport special needs students around the congested streets that are south of downtown Denver. As the city has attracted more residents in recent years, the district has become strained by road construction, limited funds for new buses, and a change in bell times at the middle and high schools.
Both companies fill the needs for transporting students with special needs (IEP & Section 504 plans) or special situations (homeless and foster care mandates under ESSA and McKinney-Vento), as well as students who move out-of-district, but who want to stay in the same schools. They just do it very differently than traditional contractors.
“Alternative transportation within our industry is nothing new, and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. It has become a vital service, whether it be for one route within a district or 100,” said Megan Carey, vice president of business development at ALC, which has partnered with U.S. school districts for more than a decade.
ALC finds existing companies in the community that already employ highly qualified, compassionate drivers who operate their own minivans, wheelchair-accessible vans and sedans. The team matches students with the right vehicles, and aims for consistency, by retaining the same trained and vetted driver every day.
Using real-time GPS, the company tracks the rides. Its proprietary software also finds inefficiencies within routes and streamlines them, so that students are in the vehicle as little time as possible. By coordinating transportation efforts with multiple districts, the company can offer competitive rates.
ALC arrived in Denver six years ago, and now helps on 12 routes for the Littleton Schools Transportation department. The contractor implemented a process of communicating with families about its services, so that they were not surprised or scared when a different kind of vehicle showed up, instead of a yellow school bus.
“They build trust through transparency. It’s enormously helpful when we don’t have a chance to tell families in a tight turn-around of school transportation,” said Michael Hush, director of transportation for Littleton Public Schools.
Needing even more help, the Littleton Schools transportation department partnered with HopSkipDrive, a ridesharing company that serves more than 1,600 schools in California and Colorado with special needs transportation. Additionally, HopSkipDrive helps families and schools with carpools, athletic trips and field trips.
The company thoroughly vets “CareDrivers” through a 15-point certification process that includes background checks and fingerprinting. The CareDriver’s vehicle also goes through a 19-point inspection. Once approved, they become part of the network that the app taps into when matching drivers with riders.
For districts, HopSkipDrive begins with a discovery meeting to understand each student’s disability and circumstance, as well as receive any special instructions. If the student requires services that includes equipment that cannot be routinely provided, the contractor forgoes the recurring trip. The company ensures that CareDrivers who are assigned to high functioning students are aware of the student’s disability, and follow special instructions for pickup, transit and drop-off.
In addition, CareDrivers participate in training. Littleton Public Schools started using the service last year for out-of-boundary students who needed transportation to alternative schools in the district. With only a week’s notice, the contractor came up with CareDrivers to help on a consistent basis, at an affordable cost.
Reassuring the Parents
“At first, it was tough for parents to switch their students out of buses and into cars, but it was a workable solution,” said Hush. “HopSkipDrive’s app gives parents full visibility of where the car is during the entire ride.”
“We educate parents and administrators about how we qualify and monitor the CareDrivers on our platform, and about the benefits of sedan travel to and from school,” said Chris Bertolet, director of B2B marketing at HopSkipDrive. “Our growth and customer satisfaction scores suggest that these stakeholders are definitely more open to our solution, as they learn about it.”
Editor’s Note: Reprinted from the March Issue of School Transportation News.