Well before students are sitting in classrooms engaged and ready to learn, students need to arrive to school safely and on time. For that to happen, all the pieces of the transportation puzzle must come together perfectly, especially in a school system like Denver Public Schools.
Over the last year-plus, I’ve spent countless hours supporting the district’s transportation services team, which has led to a new-found appreciation for the complexity of this endeavor and the paramount importance of cross-departmental collaboration.
It all begins with accurate and timely data. Our district’s philosophy, “School as the unit of change,” as well as our belief in district-wide school choice means that start and end bell times and school calendars can change from one year to the next — a process that involves multiple stakeholders and spans the better part of second semester. At the same time, the school choice process determines projected student enrollment across the city, while circumstances such as special education, physical disabilities, highly gifted and talented and English language acquisition and newcomer needs are being assessed and reviewed to ensure students’ success. All of this operational and student information has to be available before the transportation department can initiate the route planning process for the new school year.
Unlike most other school districts in the United States, Denver Public Schools operates a multi-modal transportation system that includes standard routes, two shuttle systems, multiple transportation zones and routes operated by outside partners. Given this complexity, the route planning process starts as early as the month of April for the next school year. Shuttle routes, schedules and capacity are revised to accommodate changes in start and end bell times as well as changing school enrollment and expected student flow. Standard routes are modified to accommodate both general education students and those with special circumstances on the same routes, if possible, while minimizing the number of buses on the road and miles driven without a student on board. At the same time, third-party operated routes are coordinated, public transportation eligible students are identified, and monthly passes are purchased from the Regional Transportation District for distribution at each school.
In addition to planning the routes for the new school year, the transportation services team also is responsible for informing all key stakeholders of the new transportation arrangements. Physical summer mailers are sent to families, website information is updated, electronic route manifests are shared with school staff, and a route bid process is conducted for the workforce. To ensure a smooth operation and on-time service, a week of route familiarization for bus drivers and paraprofessionals takes place before the school year starts. This period also helps with quality assurance, giving bus drivers the opportunity to provide direct feedback on the routes so that adjustments can be made for road conditions like excessive traffic or construction.
As you can see, school transportation is a complex puzzle comprised of many constantly moving parts. The challenges are great, but the reward of getting our students to and from school safely and on time is even greater.
The last few months made me realize just how critical transportation is for equitable school access. However, if transportation services are well executed, the responsible team is frequently forgotten in the grand scheme of things. So do me a favor and thank those who make school transportation possible for a job well done.