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.
Even without a push from some parents to open high schools later in the day, school officials said revamping the transportation system is necessary. A consultant's report last year found that, after years of tinkering to make runs as efficient as possible, the bus system is being "pushed to the breaking point."
Center and others said any changes would be even more difficult without efforts in recent years to attract and keep drivers.
School officials have tried to make the positions more attractive by increasing salaries. This summer the starting salary was increased to $16.57 an hour from $16.25. Drivers receive benefits, can bring their preschool-age children or grandchildren with them, and are guaranteed a minimum 35-hour workweek.
The schools also have turned to more creative recruiting methods.
The district recently partnered with other government agencies and community groups on a pilot program for immigrants who were seeking work but needed help improving their English. Farbry said that drivers, who must be citizens or have a green card, must be able to communicate with supervisors on the radio and to talk to the children.
During a 20-week training program, participants studied English and took the driving course. The 11 graduates will be driving buses this fall.
"We've realized for some time that our second-language population is probably our best resource," Farbry said. "They want to work. They do a good job. They show up every day."
Fairfax also pays tuition for drivers who are earning a high school diploma or working toward a degree at Northern Virginia Community College or George Mason University. Farbry said the district pays for two classes per person each year.
Duarte, who came to the United States from his native Nicaragua in 1983 and lives in Dale City, started as a bus driver about 2 1/2 years ago after he was laid off from a maintenance job at an apartment complex.
Before picking up students headed to Glen Forest, one of a handful of county schools that starts classes before the traditional opening day, he mopped the aisle of Bus 973. At the end of the run, he scanned each seat to make sure a kindergartener hadn't curled up for a nap under a seat, something he said happens from time to time.
"I love the job," he said. "The people here are really cool. We are all friendly, we help each other."