Story and Photos by Alice Gerard
Senior Contributing Writer
Driving a school bus for the first time was “a little nerve-wracking,” said Tara Gipp, who attended the school bus test-driving event on Sept. 30 at the Jack Burns Transportation Center, 2451 Baseline Road.
“I think you would get to be more comfortable with it. Getting used to having the different kinds of mirrors and in having confidence in yourself to do it. Confidence is a big thing. If you’re a timid driver, driving something like this would be difficult,” Tara said.
Tara’s husband, Keith Gipp, a bus driver for the Grand Island Central School System, instructed her as he took the school bus out of the parking lot. As they traveled back to the parking lot and to the serpentine course set up for anyone interested in test driving a school bus, he explained how the bus functioned. He showed her the controls and the mirrors and the loudspeaker system.
Keith said this was his first time as an instructor: “I probably went a little too quick, but she did excellent. I liked it. It was fun.”
Although Tara said she would leave the bus driving to her husband, she acknowledged that driving a school bus is a good job to have.
“The training program is over a period of weeks and months,” Tara noted. “I know the stories that he comes home with about the kids and stuff. If you like being with the kids, especially with the little ones, this is a good opportunity to interact with them. You’re helping families and you’re getting their kids to school in safety. And you’re supporting them.”
Keith said, “It’s a fun job. If you like working with kids, it’s a great job. You have them for a limited amount of time. It’s not like a schoolteacher, where you have them all day. We pick them up, and we take them to school. Then you can go home and work on stuff at home. Later, you get to take them home again. I just had my students the other day. It was their picture day, and that was so much fun getting to see them all dressed up, all looking really nice for their pictures. That’s the kind of fun stuff you get to do on the bus. Halloween, Christmas. They talk about everything they got for Christmas. The kindergartners and the first graders are the best group, but I really like them in grades two to five. They’re a fun group of kids to work with.”
Transportation Supervisor Theresa Alizadeh said, “We enjoy our children. Very much. The first day and the first week and the first month of the school year, drivers are getting used to the kids, and the kids are getting used to the driver. Then you see them carry it through the school year. By the end of June, I would say I have 10-15 drivers who have tears in their eyes, saying goodbye to those kids on the last days. They make an impact. They’re joyful. They provide the funniest stories. These drivers get very attached to the kids. Grand Island has this great community. We are in the community, a part of the community, and we care about the kids very much.”
Keith Gipp guides Tara Gipp through her test drive. This was her first time behind the wheel of a school bus.
Bob Merkle, assistant superintendent for school business and finance, was at the event to encourage people to test drive a bus.
“Come try it out. It’s not as bad as you think,” he said. “Seeing the kids every day puts a smile on people’s faces. That’s part of the reason I got into education. I love seeing the kids every day, and it really brings a lot of joy to my life. It’s a rewarding career to have. You get your summers off. You get your holidays. It’s just great interacting with the kids every day.”
To apply for the job, it is necessary to have a learner’s permit.
“It’s like when you’re 16 years old and you go get the permit for your road test. Your first obligation, which is not provided by the district, is to study the CDL book, and you take the permit test,” Alizadeh said.
The next step is to fill out an application.
“We review your application, check your references,” Alizadeh said. “We want to make sure you’re of good character. We do a background check. We check your abstract. We make sure there aren’t any high points on it.”
People receive points on their license when they are ticketed for violations on the road.
“If you have high points, maybe you’re not a good driver. We do review that. We do want to make sure you are in good standing with the DMV,” Alizadeh said.
“We really want to see that you have a good character, and you don’t have a DUI. We do check that. But once the application goes in and the board approves you, then we begin to train you. We are now training another person to be a trainer right now. They will start to work a schedule out. It takes about 30 hours of training, including training behind the wheel of a bus. There’s theory, there’s public road and range training. We take you through every step of that and prepare you to take the road test.”
“Range training is the area where we are going to take people on the road here on Grand Island and train them. Basically, it’s this whole island here. You never know where we are going to take you on the roads. You may experience the tighter roads of Sandy Beach, drive up and down the Thruway, West River, East River, speed limits. We want you to be aware of that. We want you to be aware of culverts, maybe the weight limits on roads. We want you to be aware of how we do the schools, and how we do the bus lots, and how we park at each school. That’s our range, and we take you out and prepare you to go on those roads.”
Alizadeh said there are opportunities to grow a career as a bus driver. I have driven for 24 years. I started out as a substitute. I was a sub for three years. Then I became a regular school bus driver. That was for 14 years. Then I went into where I made it a career. I became head bus driver. I did that for four years. After that, I have been transportation supervisor for eight years.
“There are opportunities,” Alizadeh said. “Right now, you’re not a substitute for too long. There are a lot of runs available. You begin the process of how to get behind the wheel in comfort. I’m looking for people who love it. But there is also that career opportunity. We have head bus driver positions, we have trainer positions, and we have a safety program going on right now. Our Sidway students have been in all week this week. Next week, we do St. Stephen, and then we do Huth and Kaegebein. We have a whole safety program of about 10 team members, who teach the kids about school bus safety. Everything from the important parts of crossing the roads safely. We show them exactly how to do that. With a staged bus, we also show them how they exit out of an emergency window if there is an emergency. We have all that going on for these next three weeks in support of school bus safety. Kids watch a video in our facility, in our break room, on the smart board. It’s the old Winnie the Pooh and Tigger video. It states everything we want to say correctly for bus safety.
“We do drills. There are three requirements drills yearly. They are mandated by the state education department. Each bus driver, almost daily, when they park the bus at the school, might go over a drill. They might do one, they might do two. They might do seven or eight or nine. But typically, I walk on buses, or I hear what they’re doing, and they are doing a lot of training with the kids, talking about the emergency windows, talking about the hatches, talking about crossing the bus safely, talking about the danger zone around the bus. We reiterate that with the kids almost daily with every run. We want to see the kids behaving properly, sitting in their seats facing forward.
“On Grand Island, our kids are pretty good on the bus. We do have moments when it can be difficult, but we get support from the district. I’ll come out; the principals come out. Any time we have a problem, we do get the district and the principal involved to settle something that might be going on in the bus. We really don’t have too many. We do a lot to make sure the kids are safe, the drivers are communicating with them, and the drivers really love their job here.”
Next time: More about school bus safety