In Northside ISD, the wheels on the bus go round and round over 8.3 million miles every year, getting 65,000 students (or 65 percent of the District’s 100,000 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 during Bus Driver and Assistant Appreciation Week, the week of April 1- April 5.
“They are the heart and soul of the Transportation Department,” Director of Transportation Rafael Salazar said. “We appreciate every single one of them every single day.”
Of the 1,000 Transportation Department employees, there are approximately 675 bus drivers and 225 bus assistants. The drivers are supported by a corps of mechanics, routers, and office workers.
The District’s fleet of 830 buses is equipped with digital video surveillance systems to serve as an extra set of eyes. The systems were funded by voter-approved School Bond 2010.
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.
Drivers have demonstrated their commitment to student safety in significant ways. Anna Arguello received the Northside Citizenship Award in February for performing the Heimlich maneuver on a 7th grader from Luna Middle School that was choking on a piece of candy on her school bus. She was able to dislodge the candy, allowing the student to breathe again. Arguello made sure the student was checked by the school nurse, and both driver and student made it back to the bus and left school on time.
“It was an unbelievable feeling that I will never forget,” Arguello said. “It was scary but you take charge and do what’s right. I was operating on instinct and trying to save his life.”
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.
Bruce Bangle has been driving a special education bus since 1999. He came to NISD after a 28-year career in sales.
“I enjoy working with the special education students and they are why I’m still working. I try every day to make them feel comfortable and safe,” he said.
He recalls a special education student who never spoke on the bus, but after many months she finally told him “good morning.”
“It makes you feel good, like what you’re doing is worthwhile,” Bangle said. “The students can really make your day. If you put a smile on their face, it comes right back to you.”
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.
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.
The District’s 5th transportation station, McClung station, opened in August 2012 to serve the far northwest side of the district. The strategic locations of the stations reduce the amount of time students spend riding the bus each day.
But when students do spend time riding the bus, they are greeted by friendly faces, like Bus Assistant Betty Avila. She came to NISD only 3 months ago but says she’s quickly learned what it takes to be successful.
“Make sure you listen to the students,” Avila said. “You need compassion and patience. It’s not just a job.”