Education

During Anchorage School District’s bus driver shortage, 4 trainees can’t wait to take the wheel

school bus driver training, Anchorage School District

Lara Giles bounced between her computer and an image of a school bus dashboard projected at the front of the class. She pointed to various elements on screen — turn signals, high beams, windshield washer fluid.

“You can’t take the bus home, so you need good pictures,” Giles said to a group of school bus drivers in training as she explained the nitty-gritty of pre-trip preparation, from checking fluids to making sure the bus is level.

The four students listened as Giles cycled through various slides and photos Thursday morning.

These soon-to-be bus drivers are among the people who have signed up to work during the Anchorage School District’s severe driver shortage. The crisis has led to a cascade of issues, including the suspension of bus service for more than 10,000 students for weeks at a time. Ahead of the school year, the district was short about 70 drivers, and officials recently said they’ll have 50 of the drivers needed on the road by the end of September.

The response by people wanting to help has been great, said Giles, a longtime bus driver and trainer with the district. She’s taught many more classes than usual.

“People are here because they’ve been called to serve,” she said.

Tracy Burton was midway through her first day of bus driver training Thursday. Her high-school-aged daughter recently came home and said that teachers were begging students to ask their parents to help with the driver shortage.

Burton, who has been a stay-at-home mom for 17 years, decided to step up.

“All I care about is the kids having buses,” she said.

school bus driver training, Anchorage School District

Tonya Routier signed up to train because she likes to work with kids. They’re innocently honest and put a positive spin on things from the start of the day, she said.

“It’s just fun, with a bunch of kids and their open minds,” she said before taking a break from class Thursday.

“We used to be kids too,” said fellow trainee Javier Tatham. “Now it’s our turn to help out the community.”

Tatham’s mom told him about the bus driver shortage. He’d been working as a chef on the North Slope since 2012, but when he heard about the shortage, he felt he had to apply.

[Alaska National Guard says it can’t help with Anchorage’s school bus driver shortage]

Similarly, Elia Faupula heard about the shortage from his father-in-law. He said he liked the responsibility of the bus driver job.

“I know people love their kids dearly, so I take that to heart,” he said. “It helps me take pride in what I do.”

The school district and its bus contractor, Reliant Transportation, have taken on enhanced recruiting efforts and incentives, including a bonus of more than $2,000 paid during the first half of the school year.

But instructor Giles said most of the people showing up for training right now haven’t heard about the bonus. They just want to help. New school bus driver positions are being advertised by the district with pay at $20.68 an hour.

It takes 40 hours to go from new student to certified bus driver, Giles said. That includes 20 hours behind the wheel, plus four permit tests and a physical.

school bus driver training, Anchorage School District

She recalled her initial days training to be a driver as overwhelming and filled with questions. But by the time her first day as a driver rolled around some 18 years ago, she loved it.

“You feel like you’re doing something that’s needed,” she said. “You’re keeping people’s kids safe.”

Each trainee said they considered the impact that riding the bus and having a good bus driver can have on a student. It’s more than just shuffling the students from Point A to Point B.

Routier still remembers her longtime bus driver, who she said was the first impactful adult she met who wasn’t a friend or family member.

“I want to be that impressionable on children where a million years from childhood, you remember who they are,” she said.

Faupula said he was bullied growing up, and it was a bus driver who spent time with him and talked to him.

“What made me want to be a bus driver also is that you can be that one influence for somebody that’s having a hard time and turn it all around for them,” he said.

A driver might not know what’s going on at a student’s home, and having a role model can make a huge difference, Tatham said. They graduate but still might remember that one person who helped.

Faupula’s face broke into a giant grin: “I can’t wait to start driving.”

school bus driver training, Anchorage School District
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Morgan Krakow

Morgan Krakow is a general assignment reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She is a 2019 graduate of the University of Oregon and spent the summer of 2019 as a reporting intern on the general assignment desk of The Washington Post. Contact her at mkrakow@adn.com.

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