Maximizing learning time while riding the big yellow bus
Monday, September 24, 2018
My seventh-grade son Brady informed me the other day that with the change to bus routes this year, he is now on the bus for nearly 45 minutes each way to school. At first, I was surprised.
We live in a small town of about 10 square miles, and it would take less than 10 minutes to drive from our house to the school. Yet, he was right. He is one of the first students picked up in the morning, and one of the last to be dropped off in the afternoon.
Each day, Brady, like millions of other children from coast to coast, deals with one of the great inefficiencies of our education system — bus transportation routes.
Inefficiencies develop as communities try to plan out how to weave buses through neighborhoods and winding roads to pick-up and drop off children at strategic locations for school. This costs money.
According to this report, Americans spend more than $17.5 billion dollars to bus more than 25 million children to school. That equates to an average cost of almost $700 annually per child.
The reality is, buses cost money, and school districts can save money by cutting routes and combining stops. How often do you drive by a half-empty bus and say to yourself, "Are they really running a bus with so few kids on it?"
The school district I work for went through a process to make bus cuts earlier this year, and the results are what you might expect: Cutting a bus may lower expenses, but it increases both walking and riding time for students. There is only so long that you can reasonably expect a child to walk to a bus stop and/or ride on a bus. This can be both a safety issue and also a waste of time for students.
What is worse is that buses also create an equity divide between economically disadvantaged students and their peers. The 25 million children taking the bus to school each day represent 55 percent of the population of school-aged children.
While some walk to school, there are many who receive a ride from parent. This recent Mind/Shift article talked about this equity divide, noting that kids who are dependent on the bus system "miss out on a hidden curriculum of on-site after-school enrichment, as well as interpersonal engagement, like impromptu conversations with teachers. The status quo puts the rural students and low-income children in large urban districts who rack up the most bus minutes at a disadvantage compared to their peers who live within walking distance of school or whose parents have the time and money to drive."
One South Carolina school district has a solution to this problem, and they enlisted tech giant Google to help them. For the last two years in South Carolina’s Berkeley County School District, students have benefited from the Rolling Study Halls program, a grant program that has equipped many of the district buses with laptops and Wi-Fi connectivity.
To keep kids engaged and on task while on these devices, teachers have developed a variety of "bus challenges," such as ones that are aligned with the reading and writing instruction platform Achieve3000.
Priscilla Calcutt, the district’s director of instructional technology, explains how such a challenge would work: "One of the bus challenges would be to read two articles from Achieve3000 and score 80 percent or higher on your quiz."
The article goes on to note that students can earn incentives such as badges, a dance or a pizza party. The district also staffs a virtual help desk that allows kids to connect with teachers and ask questions about the challenges, or get help with other homework while on the bus.
Although the Berkeley County schools have not collected data to show whether or not their innovative bus solution is working, the article suggests that teachers are seeing improved attitudes toward learning and bus drivers are reporting a decrease in misbehavior.
On the West Coast, another solution is taking shape at the Rooftop School in the San Francisco Unified School District. There, the school is putting educators on the bus with students.
The school’s principal, Nancy Bui, explains how it works in the Mind/Shift article: "Bui launched a program dubbed #FirstClass that distributes kits filled with supplies like markers, modeling clay, connect-the-dots, origami and whiteboards." Bus-riding educators pass out materials from a rolling backpack "like a stewardess, only for enrichment materials instead of drinks," Bui jokes.
The experiments in South Carolina and California may offer a solution for other districts across our country that are grappling to make better use of the time on bus.
For my son Brady, who is fortunate enough to have a Wi-Fi signal from his phone, makes use of his time getting much of his homework done before he gets off the bus. He is fortunate that he can do that, but many of his peers cannot.
Schools with exceptionally long ride times for bus-riding students may want to take note of these possibilities.
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