At 160-strong, they spent the summer parked in the quiet lots of the Transportation Department, located on a road that bears the name of their sole purpose on this earth. Those long yellow buses—the appearance of which has changed little in the past 20 or so years—have been inspected, repaired, retooled and cleaned-up all on Schoolhouse Road in unincorporated New Lenox.
And now it's the end of August, and they have already taken to the streets that encompass the 105 square miles of the district.
Elementary districts start this week: Aug. 21 for D122 and D157C, Aug. 22 for Summit Hill D161
The wheels of the bus will definitely go round-and-round, but LW Transportation Director Rich Wilkey along with his route organizers, office staff and about 160 drivers want parents and the community to know that they care for the safety of that precious cargo—the school children.
Oblivious to all that bus transportation entails, school children throughout the U.S. live out that rite of passage that brings them from preschool into elementary and later high school.
Sitting in pairs, the kindergartners and first graders in particular innocently climb up the three steps, where they're greeted by a friendly smile worn by someone they've never seen before; that's the bus driver. He or she tells them to pick a place to sit down or directs them to an already assigned seat.
Toting a backpack stuffed with chunky crayons, specially-selected folders, No. 2 pencils, and a box of tissues, they eye the surroundings and walk a bit anxiously toward a bench that grabs their attention. Maybe the choice window seats are all taken, so they have to look around for a pair of eyes that somehow says "welcome."
Within a matter of moments, the strangers greet each other and reveal their names. Before long they're swapping tidbits on important topics like the how-to's of double-knotting their gym shoes and which Transformer figurine is the toughest.
In a 10- to 30-minute ride, depending on where they live, they discover that many of their fellow bus riders have pets that snuggle in bed with them at night. And it's absolutely awesome to learn that the kid bouncing along in the same seat has a telephone number that starts with the same three numbers as their own.
Yes, they're unaware of the mammoth task of calculating 355 bus routes that run daily for the four Lincoln-Way High Schools, nine schools in , three schools in Frankfort District 157C and six schools in . That's translates into 19,000 students moving in and around District 210 boundaries on a daily basis, Wilkey said.
Each bus driver has a radio on board and regularly communicates road condition updates, such as flooding or accident back-ups, Wilkey said. And the municipalities, police from each community and make sure to keep the school transportation department in the loop on road conditions and problems, he said. There is a free-flow of information between entities.
Construction poses obstacles
The Route 30 construction project along with occasional railroad crossing improvements and the assortment of Illinois Department of Transportation improvements that are at the ready throughout the Lincoln-Way region, Wilkey cautions drivers to calculate additional travel time into their schedules.
He pointed out that in general, motorists should adhere to the basic rules of the road as it pertains to school buses:
- There is no talking on cell phones or texting in a construction zone or in a school parking lot.
- On two-lane roads, traffic needs to come to a complete halt, leaving 20 feet between the bus and the closest vehicle, while students are being picked up or dropped off.
- When children are present, the school zone speed limit is 20 mph.
- Buses take longer to clear the railroad tracks, and motorists are prohibited from going around them.
This year they will be using Illinois Highway and Francis Road, the east-west arterials, more often to avoid traffic backups on Route 30, but Route 30 will still be used, Wilkey said.
Even away from the construction projects, motorists are cautioned to be aware of the growing population of students boarding buses.
The buses will be out in force from 6:30 a.m. till 5:30 p.m. Monday-Friday. The heaviest schedule is in the morning between 7-9 a.m. and again in the afternoon from about 2-4 p.m.
The split schedules to accommodate the kindergarteners, morning and afternoon sessions, means that buses will continue to dot the landscape throughout the day.
He added that about 100 buses operated by the Lincoln-Way Special Education District 843 have a hefty load too. The stops along those routes frequently take a little longer, especially if the wheelchair lift is required.
Respect for the stop signs on the bus is of utmost to Wilke. He took a moment to remind motorists to heed the flashing stop signs on the buses. Despite the fact that it's a roving stop sign, it's every bit as relevant as a permanent one. This is the signal that indicates that youngsters are either boarding or getting off the bus; and it's crucial that other motorists abide by the rules and stop.
He knows full well that it's frustrating for motorists driving behind the bus when it approaches the railroad tracks. "(They) stop; open the doors to look and listen for trains…It's the same at every railroad crossing."
Stop signs, stop arms and railroad crossing rules and regulations are merely a part of the overall production that takes place during the week on school bus routes around the country.
The standard school bus is armed with seven mirrors set strategically by zone to see completely around the average 35- to 40-foot long bus. The mirrors are inspected regularly to ensure accuracy for the individual driver.
Bus drivers aim to get students prepared for a positive day
The bus drivers, most of whom have been involved in the schools in one way or another, are certified by the state; they've also met the Will County requirements, he said. They receive regular training on bus management and how to deal with a difficult situation.
But they're more than drivers, Wilkey said. They are the first ones that students see in the morning.
Superintendent Lawrence Wyllie respects the bus drivers and recognizes their influence on students. Every staff member—administrative, academic, office and other functional aspects pertaining to the operations of the district—are integral to the overall educational experience of the students.
Speaking in a very genuine manner about the role of the bus drivers, Wyllie has stated time-and-time again that they're that first face associated with school that students see in the morning. That momentary interaction has a big influence on starting the day off right.
It doesn't take long before the drivers—some of whom drive three routes in a day—know the names of the kids on their route. They know when the big tests are coming up, and sometimes they know when someone is anxious about a speech or a project. A friendly "good luck" or "thumbs-up" gesture goes a long way.