Solving A Big City Transportation Challenge

Photo: Eric E. Johnson

On The Bus

As every parent knows, transitions can be challenging for any child. But for those students who react to stress or disruption by acting out, who are trying to manage social issues or debilitating anxiety or who simply struggle to sit still, the challenge of riding the school bus is the hardest part of their day. 

In the early 1990's, Boston Public Schools faced a severe transportation situation. With hundreds of students in out-of-district placements, transportation had become both costly and unreliable. Disruptions on school buses had led to frustrated drivers, late arrivals and worries about safety.

Traveling A Bumpy Road

Boston Public Schools special education leaders turned to Schools for Children for assistance in serving the large number of students enrolled at Dearborn Academy. We started by evaluating the current operation and interviewing the district's special education director about goals. We all agreed that Boston needed to provide transportation that was safe, timely—and cost effective. And they needed a way to help students learn to manage the critical school to home transition.  

Together, we noted the following:

  • Safety was on everyone's minds. Students and drivers wanted to feel safe on the bus. And drivers needed to drive, not manage student behavior.
  • Students needed to trust their drivers so that they could practice the self-regulation techniques they were learning in school. As the driver's frustration increased, students found it more difficult to exert self control.
  • Most drivers had no little to no experience working with special needs students. Drivers needed support and training in handling emotional outbursts and impulse control issues. 
  • Some students were coming from and going back to difficult home situations—adding to their stress and affecting behavior on the bus
  • Drivers had no reliable way of communicating with schools for support and could not notify schools of lateness or authorities of a problematic home situation.
  • There was no effective system for monitoring or challenging the behavior of children coming and going, resulting in lack of follow-up by school personnel and/or parents.
  • Students were arriving anxious, late and unprepared for the challenges of the school day.

The Schools for Children Solution

Working closely with all parties, we developed a program to serve Boston students attending Dearborn Academy. We recruited and screened drivers, including faculty members from the school. Allowing experienced special needs staff to become drivers created a significant benefit to Dearborn students.

We sought input from all parties and created financial models to assess costs of various approaches. We assigned a manager to ride the vans to observe the experience of drivers and students first hand.

With this background, we designed a different way of thinking about transportation, one that was more integrated with the school program and in everyone’s best interests, particularly the students. 

The solution we proposed included the following: 
  • New staffing: In the new system, each van would have both a driver and a monitor. Drivers could focus on driving while monitors provided students with greater individualized support.
  • Increased training: We trained both the driver and monitor on what to do should a problem arise. The new teams could diffuse an emotional situation, encourage self-regulation, and assess the severity of an outburst. They could better communicate with school personnel.
  • Student support: We gave schools responsibility for student behavior. Teachers could focus on students who were having the most trouble getting to and from school and help them improve their behavior.
  • Better communication: We equipped each van with a mobile phone to improve communications with the school during transit.

The result was a solution that no longer defined education as something that happened only between school bells, but included the bus ride and the transition to and from home life. The bus ride, in effect, needed to become part of the school day. Transportation became a service provided by the school—part of a students' education—and a much more manageable and cost-effective alternative for the Boston Public Schools.

Delivering A Smooth Ride for Everyone

With a round-trip transportation and better communication now part of the school program, educators can work with students who struggle with self-regulation during the ride between home and school. Students know that some of the drivers are staff members from Dearborn Academy. That sense of connection creates security. Because students trust the drivers and monitors, the school is able to better recognize a difficult home situation and provide appropriate support. And having students arrive in a positive frame of mind and better prepared for a day of school improves learning.

Within three years, the program was expanded beyond Boston to include Cambridge, Medford, and several other cities/towns who were struggling not only with the high cost of transportation, but also with difficult student behavior. It remains an important option for districts referring students to Dearborn Academy.