Opinion: When schools closed, bus drivers helped students

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Credit: Aaricka Washington / Chalkbeat

Credit: Aaricka Washington / Chalkbeat

District officials in Indiana wanted case managers to build relationships with students, address their basic needs, and make sure they had tools like technology, space, and an organized schedule to succeed.

On a recent morning, several high school students in Indianapolis who had been missing class received wake-up calls.

But it wasn’t a teacher calling. Or a counselor. Instead, it was school bus driver Erica Woods, working double duty as a case manager to support students.

Woods is part college-prep guide, part mom and part cheerleader. She is one of 17 classified employees, or hourly staff, who served as the primary liaison for seniors during eight weeks of virtual learning earlier this year.

Aaricka Washington
Aaricka Washington

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Wendy Skibinski, Wayne Township’s director of college and career readiness, said the district came up with the idea last summer after seeing the effects of high school students losing the in-person support they once had.

“We had to think about how we were going to accelerate the class of 2021 and get them up to speed,” Skibinski said. “All of the things that we typically would have done last spring, they missed out on all of that.”

Since the pandemic began, many high school students nationwide have received very little in-person instruction since the onset of the pandemic a year ago and have been socially isolated during a pivotal time in their lives.

Wayne Township recognized the stresses facing many high school students: jobs to support their families, parents who lost work, financial aid and college applications, resumes, mock interviews, and graduation — all without in-person help from overworked counselors.

And district officials worried students would fall even further behind after campuses were ordered to close in November.

At the same time, Skibinski said the district wanted to retain employees who weren’t able to work in a virtual environment.

The district previously found creative ways to mobilize those workers. Last March, it assigned its bus drivers to distribute meals to students at more than 1,000 bus stops.

So last fall, Skibinski solicited volunteers among paraprofessionals and transportation staff and trained them in college and career readiness support, interpersonal skills, technology tools, the college-guidance software Naviance and resource tools on Google Drive.

District officials wanted case managers to build relationships with students, address their basic needs, and make sure they had tools like technology, space, and an organized schedule.

“It really started to morph,” Skibinski said. “Every day at 2:30, we would debrief. What are the kids asking for? What do they need? What do we need to provide more of?”

During the eight weeks of virtual learning, case managers earned their regular hourly wage. Now, as some of their previous duties have resumed with hybrid instruction, case management pays a $15 hourly stipend.

Wayne Township, which is expected to receive nearly $16 million in its second round of COVID relief funding, approved $16,000 toward the program for the remainder of the school year.

In the meantime, Woods has resumed driving a bus, starting around 6 a.m. every day. In between picking up and dropping off students, she’s checking her Galaxy 20 tablet for emails from students and calling students who may take evening classes. After work, she may spend a couple of hours checking and responding to student emails.

On a recent Saturday, when students were more reachable, she was online by 11:30 a.m., calling, emailing, and updating her color-coded spreadsheet with information on the 41 students she is responsible for.

“There could be maybe 10 to 15 doing magnificent,” Woods said. “My focus is to make sure that the rest of them are coming along, making sure that their needs are met. I will ask them, ‘Hey, can you do an assignment a day? This needs to be done.’”

Skibinski said the pandemic has been terrible for everyone, but Wayne Township’s experiment has worked well enough to continue.

“We can’t let COVID be the reason why we’re not successful,” Skibinski said. For students, “We’re going to walk alongside you because our ultimate goal is for you to graduate, but also for you to do whatever it is your post-secondary goal was.”

Woods, a grandmother of seven and a bus driver for 24 years, feels she’s come into her life’s work. She hopes now to earn a teaching credential.

“There’s a need that needs to be met,” Woods said. “I enjoy being around people. Helping has always been my passion.”

Aaricka Washington writes for Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools. This story is part of the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems. It originally appeared online here.

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