For School System, a Push to Find More 'Unsung Heroes'

Jose Duarte, originally from Nicaragua, drives Bus 973 for Fairfax County public schools. On a recent school day he wished Glen Forest student Scarlette Aleman, 10, a happy birthday.
Jose Duarte, originally from Nicaragua, drives Bus 973 for Fairfax County public schools. On a recent school day he wished Glen Forest student Scarlette Aleman, 10, a happy birthday. (By James A. Parcell For The Washington Post)
By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 30, 2007

Jose Duarte greeted each child who boarded his yellow school bus by name one recent morning, saying a cheery "good morning." When they arrived at Glen Forest Elementary School, he singled out one of his small passengers.

"It's Scarlette's birthday, everyone," Duarte said as 10-year-old Scarlette Aleman beamed. "Say 'happy birthday.' " The children, following a ritual they repeat each time one of them turns a year older, sang out birthday wishes.

When all of Fairfax County's 187 schools are open Tuesday, students and teachers will be center stage. But School Board member Kaye Kory (Mason) says Duarte and the district's other bus drivers are among the "unsung heroes" whose services often go unnoticed.

"The bus driver is the one who the child sees first in the morning and last in the afternoon, and that sets them up for the day," Kory said. "I think we have a group who are devoted and scrupulously careful."

Fairfax County schools own and operate a system that shuttles about 110,000 students in 1,570 buses daily, a publicly owned fleet that is second only to that of Miami-Dade County schools. In addition to being driven from home to school and back, during the day some students are driven between schools for specialized programs. In addition, buses are used for about 18,000 field trips a year.

Fairfax school officials, along with those in other Washington area school districts, said it has been a challenge in recent years to recruit and retain enough drivers to get students to and from school each day. Linda Farbry, transportation director for Fairfax schools, said year-round recruiting and efforts to make the job more attractive have improved the situation. She said the county had 1,140 drivers but still needed about 50 as of mid-August. Loudoun school officials said the district is short 20 to 30 drivers.

Hiring enough drivers is likely to remain a challenge for Fairfax, the nation's 13th-largest school system, because officials are considering pushing back high school start times so that teenagers -- who sometimes board buses at about 6:30 a.m. -- can get the sleep they need. Such a shift would require an overhaul of a transportation system that already is stretched.

In September, the School Board will appoint a task force of community members, teachers, athletic coaches and representatives from community groups to suggest changes to the transportation system. The panel, which will have about 70 members, will consider issues including how early schools should start and whether bus rides should be limited in duration.

School officials say changes probably will require more buses and drivers.

"You will definitely require some new routes and drivers if you change the start times. How extensive that will be is somewhat dependent on the transportation task force and the parameters they set," said School Board member Brad Center (Lee).

The task force is to make recommendations to the board in January. Board members will then seek public input as they redesign the system, because any change in school schedules would have an impact on families and roads.

"I think the larger Fairfax community forgets that Fairfax County Public Schools is a major part of rush hour with students on buses, students in cars and the 25,000-or-so-member staff coming to and from work," Kory said.

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