A new bus is there, but where are the students?

August 30, 1994|By Carol L. Bowers | Carol L. Bowers,Sun Staff Writer

The brand new school bus gleamed bright, shiny and very yellow. The warning lights winked red and yellow just when they should. The wheelchair lift worked. Driver Fred McAlpine, who made a dry run last week, was armed with the up-to-date list of school bus stops he picked up at 5:30 a.m. yesterday.

The only thing missing from this perfect scene were the students.

Really.

After four runs -- three hours and 15 minutes worth of driving -- seven students had been safely delivered to their schools.

Chalk it up to opening day, when chaos reigns.

"When I first started working here, I thought you took the students to school and then you took them home," said Lennie Gibble, an aide who helps Mr. McAlpine assist disabled students boarding the bus. "It's not that simple," she added with a knowing smile.

Mr. McAlpine had been optimistic as he pulled out of the Lake Waterford public schools' bus depot at 6:30 a.m. with Mrs. Gibble and a passenger.

After all, he was driving the first county school bus route on which handicapped and non-handicapped students would travel to school together.

Events, however, were against him. The first student didn't show up at the bus stop. Then, a large group of students told Mr. McAlpine they thought they were waiting for a different bus.

Mr. McAlpine did find Devon Williams, a chipper third-grader who was excited about his new haircut, his new pencils, his new backpack for his wheelchair -- not to mention his first crack at math and reading. He, too, wanted to see other students on the bus.

Finally, Mr. McAlpine had to tell dispatcher manager Margaret Henderson by radio, "I can't find anybody who's riding this bus." (The principal at Manor View was planning to straighten the situation out with name tags when the students headed home in the afternoon.)

When the driver stopped to pick up Andy Teeple, a sixth-grader, the wheelchair lift failed and had to be operated manually, which put the bus even further behind schedule. That slowed down the next two runs, and some parents and students waiting at other stops gave up on the bus.

"Probably one poor woman with a van had to take them," Mrs. Gibble said.

Mrs. Henderson, who has been the dispatcher manager for about 15 years, said Mr. McAlpine's day was a fairly typical first day and nothing for her or parents to be upset about.

"In the first week we get all the kinks worked out of the system," she said. "We spend the summer setting up the routes, and we try to be ready. But once the buses are on the road we start getting calls. Parents call to say the bus is 10 minutes late and they want to know if it's coming. I tell them the pickup times are approximate. It takes about a week to break everybody into a routine."

Back at the small brown office building, the drivers gathered at the tables for a midmorning snack about 10 a.m. From their various tales, it was clear, that their runs, too, hadn't been perfect.

"Is it June yet?" piped up Jackie Katawicz, whose two sisters also are bus drivers.

As the drivers came in one by one, some muttering, and others waiting to talk to Mrs. Henderson about adjustments to the routes, Ms. Katawicz reminded them, "This is a test girls. It's only a test."

To be repeated 179 more days this school year.

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