Guest Column

Superintendent Gets Taken for a Ride

by Marilou Ryder

s a teenager living in rural upstate New York, I waited patiently each morning in the first light of dawn to ride 45 minutes down country roads to get to my high school.

The old yellow school bus made 20 or so stops to pick up my friends. In winter, the good seats could be found near the heaters in the middle of the bus. The year was 1965. I recently learned not much has changed over the years.

Not long ago I met with 40-plus parents who serve on our school district’s parent advisory council. This group makes me pay attention to what’s on their minds and what they’d like improved and allows me to invite suggestions on how they can become part of the solution. The issues they raised included lack of textbooks, a delayed stadium opening, benchmark assessments, inconsistency of the dress code at certain schools, sports and the teaching of phonics.

One issue rose loud and clear above the cacophony of others — student transportation. One concerned parent worried our buses are dangerous and feared her child was not safe. Another reported our buses are too crowded, while another revealed her child must ride the bus for more than an hour. Still another implied all kids fight, our bus drivers have no control and many students must sit on the bus floor.

Finally, parent Julia Shields suggested I, the superintendent, might want to talk in person to some actual kids who ride the buses. “You’ll get the real straight facts from them,” she advised.

Coping With Chaos
I accepted her challenge, taking it one step further. I would ride one of these buses — a 60-minute, 45-mile trip from our East campus on a bus packed with high school students heading home. It was one of the supposedly dangerous routes mentioned by a parent. The most difficult part was locating my bus in the parking lot crammed full of buses coming in from West campus. Kids were jumping off one bus, running to another. What appeared as chaos to me seemed perfectly normal to most, but still it caused me concern.

I climbed on the designated bus and immediately began assessing the situation. Yes, the parents were correct — these kids were big, but only six students sat three to a seat and no one was sitting on the floor. The kids didn’t know why the superintendent was aboard their bus (nor did they appear to care), but they were infinitely curious as to why I had a notepad out.

The bus was really steaming up inside, getting hotter by the minute. Finally, after about five minutes, the bus rolled out of the school lot. All the windows were open, providing some moving air for a little relief. I instantly experienced deafening engine noise, which I imagined was why so many kids were hooked up to music apparatus. Several were swatting at one another lightheartedly, a few appeared miserable and exhausted, but most seemed to be pleased they were on their way home.

During my interviews with several riders, the students were thrilled to declare that 6 a.m. is too darn early to catch a bus and confided the real reason no one on their bus ever come to blows is because, as one put it, “We all like and know one another.” Those sitting three to a seat chose to be with their friends, and everyone spoke highly about bus driver Tammy Reiter. They indicated she is forever friendly, never yells and says goodbye to them when they exit the bus.

Some students wished the bus had a bathroom and most suggested air-conditioning would be wonderful. No one indicated the trip was unbearable and nearly everyone seemed to enjoy being with one another. These were nice kids.

About 30 minutes into the trip, most of the load exited the bus at one stop, but before leaving they closed all the windows (I found out this saves Tammy time at the end of her run). I began to sweat again. Yikes, I still had 20 hot minutes left. On Shaw Avenue, the bus stopped and another student departed. A fast-moving (50 mph) black PT Cruiser was coming toward us, never making any attempt to stop for the flashing red bus lights as required by law. Tammy, quick on the draw, blasted the horn. Luckily, the girl knew enough to look both ways and allowed the car to pass. I became disturbed that a motorist could simply disregard a stopped bus with flashing red lights.

“Anyone get that license number?” I hollered, to which the kids were quick to report this was a common occurrence. I remained angry for awhile thinking about the actual lack of control we have once a child leaves a bus. After composing myself, I took this opportunity to chat with the remaining students about homework, block schedules, AP classes and what they liked about being a student in the Central Unified School District.

Reinforcing Rules
Tammy dropped me off at the district office, and I thanked her for the ride and education. At our next parent advisory meeting, I let parents know that our buses were safe. Yes, the bus ride wasn’t comfortable, but it was safe. Getting off and on the bus was another matter, however. I promised parents I would work with the high school and transportation officials to solve the problem in the East campus parking lot, and that I’ll continue to be on the lookout for that black PT Cruiser.

As community members, we all need to help our students understand not all adults follow the rules of the road and teach our kids to never get comfortable about crosswalks or bus stops. Finally, we must reinforce the simple rule about always looking both ways even when they think it’s safe to cross.

The following week I planned to ride a junior high bus. Someone informed me that may be quite a different ride.

Marilou Ryder is superintendent of the Central Unified School District in Fresno, Calif. E-mail: mryder@centralusd.k12.ca.us