TAMPA — The Howard Frankland. "Malfunction Junction." Rush hour on U.S. 19.
Those well-known traffic logjams may get Tampa Bay commuters' blood boiling, but they have nothing on the daily ordeal faced by millions of parents of school-age children: the afternoon dismissal car line.
Some parents file in 45 minutes before dismissal to get a good spot in line and avoid an additional half-hour in gridlock. "In most schools, it's something that a parent would dread," said Renu Parker, a working mother of two children at Berkeley Preparatory School.
A Tampa entrepreneur is looking to change all that. Pat Bhava, a former restaurateur, has created a tablet- and smartphone-based system that manages a school's student dismissal process, automatically sequencing cars, displaying the status of students, and instantly handling chores such as updating lists for delegated pickup duties when a parent can't make it.
The system, PikMyKid, was born of Bhava's own experience. After selling his downtown Tun-Du-Ree Indian restaurant in 2013, he landed pick-up-the-kid duty.
"The next thing I knew I was sitting in this car line every day, and there was 30 to 40 minutes of wait time," said Bhava, then the father of a fifth-grader at the Roland Park K-8 magnet school. "I was like, 'This is what people do every single day?' I asked my wife, 'Is this what this is like?' "
He noticed that the only tools that were being used to manage the entire dismissal process were walkie-talkies, clipboards, sticky notes and harried teachers who were losing valuable planning time.
Bhava and another father started tinkering and developed a system using advanced algorithms and relational positioning methodology along with proprietary software to streamline dismissal.
The system involves a geo-fence surrounding the school. A sign alerts drivers to activate the PikMyKid app on their smartphone as they enter the "bubble," and the vehicle is automatically entered on school iPads. That gives teachers or others working the line a real-time dashboard of who is in line, in sequence.
As the children are released from a staging area in the order that their parents are listed and placed into the proper car, their name is swiped on an iPad, and a message is instantly sent to parents and caregivers indicating the child has been successfully dismissed. Auditable records for school administrators are also created.
The system automatically manages delegated pickup duties. For example, a parent stuck at work can call a friend to pick up the child, then send a message to the PikMyKid system that the friend — not the parent — will be picking the child up that day. It can also handle complicated custody arrangements, when parents split pickup duties day to day.
It works for car and bus lines, and tracks students who walk home or attend after-school programs.
In the event of a dismissal glitch, such as a bus breaking down, after the bus driver alerts the school, the system provides that information to parents — only those whose children are on the bus — instantly.
Bhava cited studies indicating that 93 percent of parents of school-going children have smartphones. Those that don't at PikMyKid schools typically go to the front office to gather their children.
The system debuted at Berkeley Prep and the Academy of Math and Science in the 2015-16 school year.
"From a parent's point of view, it was revolutionary," said Parker, the Berkeley Prep parent. "It made a huge difference."
Errol Andrews, parent of two students at the Hillsborough Academy of Math and Science, said his wife, who works for a defense contractor and travels extensively, appreciates getting the notice that her children are safe wherever she is. He acknowledged having to overcome a little tech anxiety at first.
"I thought, 'Aw, man, I have to put an app on my phone?' People tend to resist anything that's new," he said. "But when you try it, you say, 'Oh, this is cool.' "
The system has also earned the praise of Tampa's entrepreneurial community. PikMyKid was named the emerging technology company of the year for 2015 by the Tampa Bay Technology Forum and was a member of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce's 2015 class of Startup Scholars.
Bhava has raised about $450,000 in seed capital and is in the market to raise $1.5 million more.
The PikMyKid system will be in more than 100 schools across eight states, Mexico and Saudi Arabia by the end of 2016.
The company is focusing on private schools, charters and day care centers, which can act independently without the typical bureaucracy of a public school district. A system will be installed at the new tech-oriented Wiregrass Elementary in Pasco County, and that school district has expressed interest in providing the service at additional schools.
PikMyKid charges schools $4,000 to $5,000 to install the system, and there is no charge to parents. A business plan prepared in conjunction with the University of South Florida indicates a school would save more than $40,000 annually in productivity, transportation and other costs with the system.
As it grows, Bhava is experimenting with other services PikMyKid could provide, such as more extensive messaging and a payment gateway, through which schools could collect money for lunch, tuition, fees, day trips or fundraising. A staff of 11 is currently working out of Bhava's garage office in Westchase, but the company has now signed a lease for office space near Tampa International Airport.
Bhava said that on any given day, 80 million U.S. parents are going through the agonizing process of the school car line.
"The problem is universal," he said. "We're fulfilling a need in an extreme-pain area."
Contact Jerome R. Stockfisch at [email protected]