SOUTH BEND — South Bend district leaders say they’re happy with progress made in getting students to and from school on time after the corporation enacted sweeping transportation changes this year.
Last fall, district leaders restructured school start times giving elementary, middle and high schools distinct pick up and drop off times.
Administrators say the shift from a two-tiered to three-tiered transportation schedule has allowed the corporation to streamline services and cut back on late arrivals.
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Transportation Director LaToya King said 95% of students are now arriving to school on time in the morning, a 60% increase from last year.
The three-tiered system also helped the department reduce the number of drivers needed to run routes, resulting in more than $2 million of savings in operations expenses.
“The three-tier system is working,” Assistant Director Greg Dettinger said. “We’re working with 32 less drivers and we’re on time. If we didn’t have the three-tiered system today, today we would’ve had 40 to 50 routes running an hour to two hours late.”
Transportation, for years, has been a pain point among South Bend families and staff with late arrivals regularly chipping away at valuable class time in past school years.
School districts across the country have also grappled with pandemic-driven work shortages.
Some Michiana districts pivoted quickly to remote learning this winter after call-offs due to coronavirus positivities and quarantines stretched already thin transportation departments.
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South Bend, however, has not been one of those districts.
“We’re making it work with the three-tier system,” King said. “We do have drivers that don’t have second or third tiers who have been able to pick up that slack.”
This school year’s changes appear to be paying off. Multiple school board members, who had been vocal in the past about their frustrations with the system, applauded the transportation department for its work this school year.
And, inquiries from parents are also down. Last school year, the transportation department received more than 9,700 calls a month. King said that total is now down to less than 800 calls a month, and the department’s responsiveness to those calls has improved. Transportation staff are now answering about 95% of calls to their department, up from 65% last year.
“Being a parent, you have faced me in the public as an angry little parent looking for my bus,” South Bend Board Secretary Stephanie Ball said to the transportation team in a Monday night meeting. “I can definitely say that I have not had to be an angry little parent, so we know there’s improvement.”
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The South Bend school board approved new resources Monday night to continue building upon progress in the department.
A new tablet technology will cost $322,000 in the first year and about $60,000 for each year’s renewal. Another contract to help modernize drivers’ timekeeping will cost about $30,000 annually.
“As you tie this into the efficiencies we’ve already made and the $2 million in savings, that’s just going to continue to increase,” Dettinger said. “The cost savings will far outweigh the cost and purchases of these two solutions.”
With the approval, the transportation department plans to roll out the technology that will streamline drivers’ timekeeping and provide real-time updates on bus locations and estimated arrival times at schools.
New dashboard tablets will provide GPS direction, which Dettinger said is important for substitute bus drivers stepping in for unfamiliar routes. The technology will save an estimated $60,000 to $70,000 typically spent on printing paper routes.
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The dashboards are also designed to scan students’ school IDs and ensure students are boarding the proper bus – a mistake Dettinger said his department sees often among elementary students.
ID-use among students has already been piloted in two South Bend schools and is expected to be introduced incrementally among schools during the fall semester.