School bus drivers train intensively to handle special cargoes

By Kristen Meriwether

At least 30 minutes before their shift, all Liberty Hill Independent School District bus drivers arrive at the transportation building near Liberty Hill Middle School. Some are getting together earlier to talk, drink coffee and swap stories with fellow drivers in the mechanics’ garage, which also serves as an extended break room during COVID.

As shift start time approaches, drivers head to their buses for a pre-departure inspection. They check the lights, make sure the rear door is operational, and visually inspect the tires. Drivers then pop the hood to check engine fluids, belts and make sure there are no leaks.

Once the drivers verify that the bus is working properly, everyone takes their route to collect their precious cargo: the LHISD students.

“When I train drivers, I tell them my ultimate goal is to get them where I feel safe enough for my daughter to ride with them,” Tyrone Knight, a pilot and LHISD lead trainer, said during from a recent interview. from his bus.

Knight has been training bus drivers at LHISD for six years and has been driving for the district for eight years. After spending 19 years in retail, he wanted a schedule that would allow him to spend more quality time with his daughter. With the bus driving schedule almost mirroring her daughter’s school schedule, it was a perfect fit.

“Although I don’t do close to what I did, I can’t go back,” Knight said. “For me, it’s a better compromise.”

Knight rides a motorbike in his spare time and said he’s not too concerned about driving exams to become a bus driver. But the challenge of having dozens of kids behind him while cruising the roads of Liberty Hill was a bit unexpected.

“When I got behind the wheel it was a whole different world,” Knight said.

It wasn’t just the kids who misbehaved (although it does sometimes). It was the gravity of realizing what he was responsible for and how uncooperative the other drivers on the road – many of whom were parents themselves – around the bus.

“I don’t think anyone is aggressively malicious or anything like that, but it’s in that nature that if you have to get somewhere you don’t want to be stuck behind a slow bus,” Knight said.

During his training, Knight teaches pilots both offensive and defensive techniques. The district router will also try to avoid sending drivers on too many unprotected left turns. But full stops at level crossings, an annoyance for many drivers behind the bus, are required by law.

Dealing with children
Like his classmates, Knight and his fellow drivers have to deal with students who can, on occasion, be rowdy, cranky, or uncooperative.

“Children are all different,” Knight said. “I think it’s very important for a driver to have a conversation with his children, to be able to build that mutual respect.”

Knight draws from his coaching experience to talk to students about their level and show that he can be someone that students can trust.

He said the reserve of judgment has been a huge asset in gaining the confidence of the students. Knight recalled a route he took that had students with discipline issues. He never treated these students any differently and when another student had a health problem on the bus, it was the “troubled” students who took action to help first.

“I always tell drivers, you can’t judge these kids because you don’t know what the outside factor is,” Knight said. “You don’t know exactly what’s going on until you talk to them. “

Just enough pilots
LHISD has 39 bus drivers this year compared to 41 last year, but the district has so far been able to avoid the bus driver shortages that have made headlines in other districts of the country. country.

“We were really lucky,” said LHISD Director of Transportation Meleia Cox.

Cox credits a fantastic router, Evelyn Mcleod, and the fact that many drivers are able to drive multiple routes every shift, a reason to avoid a real shortage.

But as more students continue to enroll and new homes come online, the district is looking to proactively hire four more drivers.

“I cringe when I see new construction,” Cox said with a laugh.

She was joking, but the stress of growing up doesn’t make you laugh. The district currently transports about 1,600 students in the morning and about 2,300 in the afternoon – an increase from last year of 600 students in the morning and 800 in the afternoon, Cox said.

To cope with the increase, LHISD added seven elementary routes, seven middle school routes and five high school routes.

To help attract more drivers to meet demand, the LHISD school board voted in June to increase the base salary for bus drivers to $ 18 per hour, aligning the salary with that of neighboring districts. Drivers also receive the health benefits of a full-time employee, although they only work 25 to 35 hours per week.

The district also has a strong training program that is tailored to each person applying. Knight, who is a trainer, said they accompany potential drivers to take the test so they feel supported throughout the process.

Once they’re licensed, Knight or another trainer will spend at least 20 hours training the new driver on the bus, getting to know the route, and in some cases, the kids.

“It helps relieve anxiety,” Cox said. “If something happens, they have someone there who has experience. “

Cox and Knight invite all members of the community who have the capacity to work a shift to apply.

“If you want to make a difference in the life of your child or a child and really be part of a change in your school district for the better, then a good way to get in is to be a bus driver,” Knight said.

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