In Northside ISD, the wheels on the bus go round and round over 8.2 million miles every year, getting 60,000 students to and from school every day.
It’s the drivers of those buses – and their assistants – who make sure those students get to school safely and on time.
It’s not as easy as it seems, and their efforts are being honored throughout Northside ISD this week for Bus Driver and Assistant Appreciation Week.
“They are the heart and soul of the Transportation Department,” Director of Transportation Rafael Salazar said. “There are one thousand of them and we need every single one of them every single day.”
Bus drivers are charged with a wide range of responsibilities and challenges, Salazar said. Elementary buses transport up to 71 students, and middle and high school buses can carry up to 58 students. Besides driving the bus and navigating traffic and road construction, bus drivers must also learn bus evacuation procedures, basic bus maintenance, monitor their students’ behavior and discipline them if necessary.
The District’s fleet of 787 buses is equipped with video cameras to serve as an extra set of eyes. And the drivers are supported by a corps of mechanics, routers, and office workers.
Many of Northside ISD’s bus drivers say they were drawn to the job by the part-time hours and health insurance benefits, but they’ve stuck with it because they discover how much they like working with children. Many drivers are retired from the military or previous careers.
“I didn’t think I was going to last at first,” said Lorenzo Rodriguez (pictured), who has been with NISD since 1996 and drives a bus for students with special needs. “But I just kept going and started learning a lot more and really started enjoying it. It makes it easier when you get to know the students.”
Luis Almaraz agrees. Bus drivers genuinely care for the children who ride their bus, he said.
“The most rewarding thing for me is when I’m in the store and one of the kids that used to ride my bus runs up to me and says hello,” said Almaraz, who has been a bus driver since he retired from Frito-Lay as a district manager eight years ago. “It really makes me feel like I’ve done a good job.”
Almaraz also drives a bus for students with special needs and is assisted by Eva Sanchez, who makes sure the students are safe, comfortable and happy on their way to Marshall High School. Even if a student is non-verbal, it’s Sanchez’s job to figure out what they need.
“Sometimes they just want to hold your hand,” she said.
While rewarding, driving a school bus is not for everyone. The morning shift starts at 6 a.m. and lasts until 9 a.m. and the afternoon shift is 2 to 5 p.m. Some drivers pick up a mid-day shift to take home pre-k students or take students on a field trip. Many use the time in between to run errands, work another job, or socialize with fellow drivers.
All bus drivers receive extensive training to learn how to operate the bus, manage students and provide first aid. Bus driver mistakes are few and far between, but when they happen, they usually make the evening news.
Several years ago, a substitute bus driver dropped off a pre-k student at her stop, even though a parent wasn’t waiting at the stop. The child ultimately was located unharmed, but the story was all over the TV news. The incident prompted the District’s Transportation Department to change its procedures for substitute drivers, Salazar said.
Now, substitute drivers are given a roster of all the students who ride the bus and where their stop is. When they pick the students up at school, they take attendance and check off the students as they get off. For all buses, whether driven by a substitute or the regular driver, pre-k students must be dropped off in the care of an adult or older sibling.
“It takes a little longer, but it’s worth it to ensure all children are being dropped off at the right stop,” Salazar said.
The District’s Transportation Department is committed to the safety of the children, and to the community at large, Salazar said. In fact, Northside ISD was the first school district to begin buying propane-fueled buses to reduce the amount of pollutants and emissions released into the air.
Nineteen years ago, Melvin Evans retired from the Air Force but soon found he wasn’t suited for a life of leisure. A few months later, he was hired as bus driver for Northside ISD. He’s served the Taft High School area for most of his tenure and has watched many students grow up.
“I like the mental part of it – being involved all the time,” he said. “The kids keep you young. It keeps you in touch with what’s going on.”
Amy Martinez, the mother of a Luna Middle School student, said she’s grateful for her son’s bus driver, Shanna Hauger. She knows her son will arrive at school safely each day, and she knows “Miss Shanna” is looking out for all the children on the bus.
“We’ve run into her in the store and she knows my kids by their name,” she said. “She has a smile on her face all the time and she’s just real sweet.”