Atlanta parents give surprise sendoff to retiring school bus driver

Atlanta Public Schools bus driver Alma Jennings gets off her bus in shock as parents and students gather to celebrate her retirement on Monday, May 23, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

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Atlanta Public Schools bus driver Alma Jennings gets off her bus in shock as parents and students gather to celebrate her retirement on Monday, May 23, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Alma Jennings slowly drove the big yellow bus down the street, just as she has so many times during her 28 years as an Atlanta Public Schools’ bus driver.

She stopped at a corner in the Morningside neighborhood. The bus lights flashed. The brakes hissed. But on this afternoon, the parents and children waiting at the stop sign were holding signs, flowers and balloons — all for her.

“Are you serious?” she asked her well-wishers during Monday’s surprise gathering. “Thank you so much.”

Jennings will drop off her last student today, the final day of the school year. She retires on Friday.

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Parents and students hold signs and balloons to surprise Atlanta Public Schools bus driver Alma Jennings as she pulled up to their stop on her route on Monday, May 23, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Parents and students hold signs and balloons to surprise Atlanta Public Schools bus driver Alma Jennings as she pulled up to their stop on her route on Monday, May 23, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Parents and students hold signs and balloons to surprise Atlanta Public Schools bus driver Alma Jennings as she pulled up to their stop on her route on Monday, May 23, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

At bus stops up and down her route, families showed their appreciation with a celebratory send-off. They waved hand-drawn signs and carried a card addressed to the best bus driver ever.

“She’s just the sweetest, kindest, loving person,” said parent Susanna Roberts, who helped organize the surprise tribute. “Through her mask you can still tell she’s smiling. And she trains the kids in case there’s a substitute driver so they know how to get home.”

Morningside Elementary School parent Kristy Ramby praised Jennings for the care she takes with every child, including one of hers who has food allergies.

“She definitely watched out for him,” Ramby said.

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Callan McCracken held a sign while waiting to surprise bus driver Alma Jennings along her bus route in Atlanta on Monday, May 23, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Callan McCracken held a sign while waiting to surprise bus driver Alma Jennings along her bus route in Atlanta on Monday, May 23, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Callan McCracken held a sign while waiting to surprise bus driver Alma Jennings along her bus route in Atlanta on Monday, May 23, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Add that to a long list of things this veteran driver can handle.

Boisterous kids? No problem.

“She’s really good at taking care of the fifth graders. If they start like screaming and stuff on the bus she calms them down,” said Roberts’ third grade daughter, Millie-Byrd.

Maneuver between big trucks on Atlanta’s winding and hilly streets? She’s got it.

“That’s what 28 years of driving will do,” she once told a parent.

Check on children? Of course.

“When I’m sad or I look sad in the afternoon she’s like, ‘Are you OK?’” said Callan McCracken, 8.

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Parents and students gather to surprise Atlanta Public Schools bus driver Alma Jennings along her bus route on Monday, May 23, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Parents and students gather to surprise Atlanta Public Schools bus driver Alma Jennings along her bus route on Monday, May 23, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Parents and students gather to surprise Atlanta Public Schools bus driver Alma Jennings along her bus route on Monday, May 23, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

She commands respect on her bus, but “she gets it done in the most kind, respectful way,” said John Franklin, who leads the APS transportation department.

APS employs hundreds of bus drivers. Most stay on the job for about seven years, making Jennings’ career all the more remarkable.

“The kind of person you hate to see leave,” Franklin said.

Especially since the district needs to hire 40 more drivers to be fully staffed next school year.

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When Jennings spotted the cheering street-side crew, she got out and hugged each person. It’s the right time to retire, she said, but she couldn’t talk long.

She had a busload of kids to get home.

”It’s been a good journey,” she said. “I have to get on my route.”

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Atlanta Public Schools bus driver Alma Jennings received flowers and balloons from parents and students along her bus route on Monday, May 23, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Atlanta Public Schools bus driver Alma Jennings received flowers and balloons from parents and students along her bus route on Monday, May 23, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Atlanta Public Schools bus driver Alma Jennings received flowers and balloons from parents and students along her bus route on Monday, May 23, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com