Gruening Middle School principal Bobby Jeffs speaks during a bus safety assembly at the school on Tuesday, Aug. 16 the first day of school in the Anchorage School District.
STAR PHOTOS by MATT TUNSETH
Herding a few hundred middle school students onto about a dozen school buses isn't easy especially when it's the first ride home many will ever take.
"A lot of our students have never ridden a bus before," said Gruening Middle School principal Bobby Jeffs on Tuesday, Aug. 16, the first day of school for students in the Anchorage School District.
With eight "feeder" elementary schools in the area, Gruening draws from a diverse swath of town that includes most of Eagle River and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Because many of the school's incoming seventh graders live close to elementary schools, Jeffs said many are completely new to the big yellow bus. For example, Jeffs said almost none of Gruening's students who live on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson rode the bus to school last year. Now, almost all of them do.
"A lot of them are walkers, they live so close to the neighborhood elementary," he said.
Because of this, Gruening for the past couple years has ended its first day of classes with a bus safety assembly. At this year's event, Gruening adminstrators, along with ASD transportation specialist Wayne Campbell and Forsythe Transportation safety supervisor Joellen Kirk, went over basic safety rules keep conversations quiet, don't distract the drivers, be respectful of others before sending the students streaming into the parking lot.
Jeffs said it's important to stress bus safety now, so students are savvy by the time darkness and icy conditions descend on bus stops.
"The big problem in the wintertime is ice," Jeffs said. "We try to get them to wear clothing that drivers can see, especially when it starts getting dark."
Just telling middle school students to be safe and follow the rules isn't always enough. That's where Kirk comes in.
When she was introduced, the area's top bus watchdog got a loud ovation from the Gruening student body. That's because many of them have known her for years.
"I follow them all the way from kindergarten," Kirk said.
Kirk's job is twofold. First, she's responsible for watching bus drivers and evaluating their performances. Second, when a bus gets unruly, Kirk's the one drivers call to straighten things out.
"If I have issues on a bus, they'll call in and I'll go have a little chat," Kirk said.
As the Eagle River area's lone safety supervisor, Kirk said she spends her mornings during the school year driving around checking out as many stops as she can to make sure kids are safe. She likes to have a visible presence in the community so students and parents know someone is watching out for them.
"The kids know I'm out there," she said.
But she doesn't always make herself so obvious. Sometimes, she said she hangs back in order to keep troublemakers on their toes.
"I've got a couple spots I like to hide," she said.
Wayne Campbell said another innovation that's making the school bus more user friendly has been the addition of an automated bus schedule system. He said parents can now punch their home address into a page on the district's website (www.asdk12.org), and their bus stop and a schedule will pop up automatically.
"People really use it a lot," he said.
Jeffs said the new system has been a huge help.
"That is phenomenal," he said.
Following the big assembly, Gruening's staff led the kids outside to a line of waiting buses. There were a few rough spots a few kids needed a help finding the right bus, and one driver's brakes momentarily locked up but nothing that wasn't quickly cleared up. After the final bus drove off, a few of the school's administrators and staff stood together smiling and chatting about how the whole production had gone. A pretty smooth ride, most agreed.
"It was a great first day," Jeffs said.
Contact Matt Tunseth at 694-2727 or firstname.lastname@example.org
This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, August 17, 2011.