Twice a day kids bound up the steps and scatter to find their favorite seats. The level of noise increases with the number of students. Someone takes a good look down the aisle and the rows of seats, makes sure each child is properly seated, and settles into the driver’s seat. The big yellow school bus is ready to roll.
But it’s not quite that simple.
Before the school year even starts, buses and drivers are put through their paces.
Terry Boy has been driving buses for the Valparaiso Community School Corporation for just shy of 20 years. “Every summer we attended a statewide safety meeting to go over new statutes and safety precautions," she said. "Now it’s online, but it’s still a state requirement for all school bus drivers. On a local level, we have a back-to-school safety meeting for updates in improvements from the previous year.”
About a week before school starts drivers pick up their route sheets and review them. Terry Boy will drive the route (in her car) when she has any question about new stops, and to check for construction delays or detours. “I’ve been doing the same route for 17 years, but I like to see what new students are going to be on the bus so I know what area to look at and to be aware of where they’re coming to catch the bus. You have to have it right the first day.”
Transportation director Terry Busse, 41, begins his fourth year with La Porte Community School Corporation. “We go through each bus inside and out to make sure everything’s ready to go for the new school year,” he said.
The drivers get ready by heading out to a rodeo.
“This will be the second year for us to do a rodeo school-bus style," Busse said. "It’s a fun event, and everyone in the transportation department is invited.”
There is a skills station, where drivers negotiate obstacles such as safety cones. The fire department fills a bus with smoke so drivers can practice finding the exits for evacuating the bus. There is a written test on safety issues like railroad crossings and student pickups. And before any trip can be taken, each bus driver has to do a bus inspection.
“We’ll purposely make several items wrong with the bus, and the driver has to find them,” Busse said.
There are practice procedures for special-needs buses the school corporation provides. Wheelchair ties, special car seats and five-belt seating need to be secured correctly.
“A beautiful thing about the bus rodeo is that members of the local community do the judging and award prizes," Busse said. "It’s a way to show what a great bunch of safe and skilled drivers we have in the La Porte schools.”
Donna Rigoni, school bus driver for School Town of Munster, said, “It’s very important that the drivers, the mechanics and the maintenance people work together. Things wouldn’t run so smoothly if we didn’t have such a wonderful team.”
After 14 years, Rigoni still loves her job. “From kindergarten to seniors (in high school), they’re great kids. I just saw three moms and one of my (school bus) kids at Target, and we recognized each other and we talked. We have such a great community here, and that helps keep Munster strong.”
Now 59, Boy is a second-generation school bus driver. Her father, Toney Meska, drove Valparaiso school buses for 35 years. “It’s kind of fun when you start seeing generations of students,” she said.
Before the start of school, Boy said, “We can take the bus out and get used to it again; it’s kind of a big vehicle to get around the corners.”
Busse said she likes the flat-nose buses for easier vision directly in front of the bus. There are six such buses in the La Porte school system, but, Busse said, “At a cost of $25,000 more per bus, they seat only six more children; both styles of buses have the same mirrors; and our front-engine buses have a crossing gate that forces students to walk at least 10 feet in front of the bus. So both types provide good vision for the driver.” Either way, Boy said cars following too closely behind the bus can be hard to see.
“The job takes lots of love and a little bit of discipline,” Rigoni said. “The kids -- maybe a little one is having a recital, or an older one a dance, and they’ll come to me and show me their pictures.
“It’s like having a big family, and it’s so rewarding.”