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Appreciation Week for the smiling faces that greet school children

While attending a bus driver appreciation event at Salem Elementary School yesterday, Department of Public Instruction Superintendent Mark Johnson expressed his gratitude for bus drivers, adding that he rode a bus to school.

“You know what, Mark,” veteran driver James Beckwith chimed in, “that wasn’t that long ago, either.”

The exchange illustrated one of the greatest assets a bus driver can have: a sense of humor. For Beckwith and his colleagues, the moment was an extension of their jobs on the bus — to try to make the kids smile and maintain a positive environment on the way to and from school.

“It makes me feel good because sometimes you see the kids when they get on the bus and they have a terrible look on their face. So I’ll say, ‘Hey. Look up; smile.’ Believe it or not, that helps them. … They say, ‘Mr. Beckwith, you are crazy!’ But they’re laughing. They’re smiling all the way.”

Superintendent Mark Johnson greets school bus driver James Beckwith, who retired from auto parts sales eight years ago and returned to driving school buses. Beckwith’s first job was as a school bus driver in Apex in the 1950s, when he was still in high school. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC

At the breakfast gathering that is part of National School Bus Driver Appreciation Week, Salem Elementary Principal Derrick Evans underscored the importance of the drivers and their interactions with the students. After all, they are the first face the kids see before school and the last face before going home.

“The bus drivers have such a huge impact because how the atmosphere is on the bus and how the students feel treated on the bus really impacts their learning throughout the whole school day,” Evans said. “So when the bus drivers are doing a great job and being as caring and compassionate as our bus drivers are, it really helps the students to get a great start to their morning.”

Johnson, in his third year celebrating school bus driver appreciation week as superintendent, chose Apex this year after Charlotte and Greenville the previous two years. He wants to get to as many different areas to meet as many of the unheralded chauffeurs as possible.

“One thing about this job is I just wish there was more time in the day,” he said. “I’ll be going from here back to the Department of Public Instruction to work on policies, which are extremely important, but it means so much when you actually get the time to come in person and thank people. Especially these bus drivers.”

 For Johnson, perhaps the expression of gratitude helps atone for a little youthful mischief.

“I remember sometimes I was just a kid misbehaving on the bus,” he joked. “And that makes me so much more appreciative to what these bus drivers do every day.”

Under the layer of jest, however, lies an issue bus drivers face regularly. Wake County has experienced a shortage of bus drivers recently, and one reason cited by drivers leaving the job are unruly children.

Beckwith, and fellow driver Dewanda Scott, say they knew how to handle that during their first stint as drivers. Each of them drove buses decades ago — as high school kids, when that was allowed. In those days, if a student “acted up,” they just pulled over and asked them to leave.

“But you can’t do that now,” Beckwith said. “You can’t even raise your voice at them now.”

Which doesn’t mean the issue lies dormant. In fact, at Salem Elementary, during the first quarter of this school year there were more than 30 disciplinary complaints from bus rides.

In response, the school instituted a “bus leader” program where students, like fifth-grader Trá Tanner, are chosen to be role models and ambassadors on the bus. They help keep their peers in line, which is helpful particularly on Tanner’s bus ride — which typically lasts 45 minutes from Southeast Raleigh to Apex.

The quarter after the bus leader program was implemented, disciplinary complaints from bus rides dropped at least 80 percent to six complaints. Salem Elementary borrowed the idea from another school, but its success and the data supporting it has drawn intrigue from district officials.

“The county has been really supportive of the idea and they’ve been interested in it because the data alone shows that it’s working,” school counselor Morgan McNally said. “We’re pretty excited to keep tweaking it and build up our leaders.”

On Wednesday, having Tanner as bus leader was also helpful to driver Janet Banks. Road closures forced her off her route and Tanner was able to navigate them to school.

“Trá saved us on the bus,” a small boy says as he passes in the hall. Nearby, teachers confirm, “Trá is a rock star.” But for Tanner, the rock star is Banks.

“She’s a nice person,” Tanner said of his bus driver. “She’s always talking to us and [asking], ‘How did your day go?’ She’s always supportive if she sees us sad or anything.”

Rupen Fofaria

Rupen Fofaria is the equity and learning differences reporter at EducationNC who is passionate about shining light on under-reported issues.