At first glance it looks like a regular classroom at Fairfax's Marshall High School. The chairs line up in neat rows in front of the chalkboard. A fan in the corner churns to cool down the muggy, summer air. And the students are starting to look weary after being here since 6 a.m.
But then you see the huge truck tire hanging a few inches off the ground over in the left corner that students use to practice putting chains on. In Gerber baby food jars on the left are green, red and blue fluids with labels that read "Anti-Freeze", "Power Steering Fluid" and "Washer Fluid." And you notice the posters on the walls that read "Lane Changing--Do It Safely," "Avoid the Sideswipes," "Are You Positive You're Empty? Always Double Check" and "Remember When Picking Up--Let Them Come To You." Then the teacher standing next to a desk with a miniature yellow bus on it starts talking about the day's topic to the 18 students.
"I encourage each one of the special-ed drivers to find out about your children," said Debbie Mosher, the instructor. Then she asks how they might be able to do that.
"Establishing rapport with parents," the class says in unison.
Moments later, the lights go off and all eyes are focused on a video describing the best way to clean up bodily fluids.
This isn't summer school. And these students obviously aren't making up a failed chemistry or even an auto shop class. Instead, this course by the Fairfax County school system hopes to give the county something it can't seem to find enough of: bus drivers.
For the past several years, the school system has had a problem finding enough drivers for 1,000 buses that shuttle the county's 100,000 students to school each day. But at the end of last school year, that problem went from bad to terrible.
The school system in June was about 100 drivers short and at one point even said it might have to change the starting times at more than 30 schools because of the shortage. Those heading up the school transportation system don't think they will have to do that now, but they still are scrambling to make sure they have enough people behind the wheel when Labor Day rolls around.
"We've tried everything imaginable," said Timothy Parker, assistant director of transportation for the school system. "We're competing against everyone from McDonald's to UPS and everyone in between."
School administrators went as far as Winchester and Front Royal on recruitment drives. They've been slinging banners and signs on parked buses and county vehicles asking people to give them a call. And this year, for the first time, they're treating new recruits like superstar free agents--giving them $500 signing bonuses. They're also paying the same amount in bounties to any current driver who brings in a new recruit that makes it into the driving pool. Soon the system plans to offer an English as a Second Language Course to help people who might not be able to speak English well enough to enter the program currently.
It seems that some of those moves are already beginning to work. Pop down to the back side of Marshall High at 6 a.m., and 10 yellow buses with student drivers are getting ready to rumble down the road to their training. Later at lunch time, another 10 will go out, double the normal amount. Parker said about half of the people who enter the 140-hour training course eventually become bus drivers for the county.
They not only have to master the training from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. each day, but they have to pass background checks. And Parker and his staff are constantly watching to see how the drivers might potentially react with children--especially 60 of them who might be yelling as the driver tries to find the next stop.
"We're not just putting anyone behind the seat," Parker said. "But we want someone who cares about children and will be safe. We like to think of it as if they're driving our children."
Parker said the recruits have ranged from a former NASA scientist with multiple degrees to some who didn't graduate from high school. The $10.80 entry pay rate is usually attractive to someone who likes the flexibility of working part time and wants the summers off, Parker said. Another major perk for parents looking after their children: Drivers may bring their own children on the bus while they work.
The flexibility of the job is what attracted Cong Le, who is just starting the training. The 35-year-old man from Springfield said he never thought he would be shuttling children around. But after a stint as a security guard and as a currency exchanger at Reagan National Airport, he decided to go back to school at George Mason University. A bus driving job will allow him to study during the day between runs.
"This is perfect," said Le, who added that he needs to be home in the evening to look after his 4-year-old daughter. "This is the only job I can have and go to school during the day."
Colleen Delaney, 35, was a physical therapy assistant not long ago. Then she had her third child. She wanted to do something that allowed her to spend more time with her children and avoid the high costs of child care. Her biggest challenge so far: mastering the pre-trip check of the bus. Every morning, drivers need to be able to pop the hood of their buses and check the mechanics from the tension of the belts to the wiring.
"The first day I was extremely intimidated," said Delaney, who recently passed that mechanical inspection component to the satisfaction of her instructors. "Today I'm feeling comfortable. I'm finding myself becoming much more aware of my surroundings when I drive."
For those that make it all the way through the course, the feeling of accomplishment can be profound. At times, Shelley Moore had her doubts about making it. Other than knowing where the oil stick was, she didn't know anything about what was under the hood. And when she got behind the wheel of the bus initially, it was almost overwhelming.
"I thought, 'Oh my Gosh! I'm driving this huge piece of machinery and I'm responsible for it,' " said Moore, who plans to take two of her children on the bus with her until she can save enough money to finish her English literature degree.
When the 33-year-old mother of five finished the training at Marshall High, she was in tears. On Monday, she was back to let her former instructors know that she had passed the job-training segment that day and will soon be ready to hit the roads.
When Moore saw Lisa Greenwalt, the program's training supervisor, she began waving her hands above her head in excitement. But Greenwalt already knew the good news.
"You made it, Shelley!" Greenwalt exclaimed. Then the two hugged.
CAPTION: Instructor Cathy Schultz affixes a magnetic banner to a school bus before starting class. Al Razavi, left, is one of many students learning to drive a school bus in Fairfax County.
CAPTION: Peggy Medlin, right, uses a wooden stick to point out certain items in the bus engine. Each morning, a driver must check the mechanics of the bus.