LAND O'LAKES — At the start of each school year, when many kids are new and so are many bus drivers, Pasco County school officials have a lurking fear.
Some child will end up getting off the school bus at the wrong stop far from home.
It doesn't happen often — maybe three or four times a year. But "that's three or four too many," transportation director Gary Sawyer said.
This fall, the district hopes to eliminate the problem with a new system aimed at giving extra attention to the youngest children as they get on and off their buses. It is the most comprehensive effort ever tried in Pasco or neighboring school districts.
Every elementary school bus will have a color assigned to it. Children riding that bus will receive color-coded tags with their names and bus stop codes to attach to their backpacks. Cost: About $6,000, or $150 per elementary school.
For three weeks, drivers will take attendance as pupils board the buses. As each gets off, the driver will make sure the code on the tag matches the stop number on that route.
"It's a response to what we perceive as safety issues with children," assistant superintendent Ray Gadd said.
Three elementary schools — Woodland, New River and Mittye P. Locke — gave the system a trial run in May.
Locke principal Tammy Berryhill deemed it a "big improvement" over past programs. Locke has used coded tags to get kids to the right buses, but the extra checks are welcome, she said.
"This is taking it to the next step," Berryhill said. "I think it's really important. The safety of our kids is the first priority."
During the test, some parents complained the labels gave too much information. Originally, the labels included the intersections or addresses where the kids would be getting off the bus.
"They felt if someone got close enough, they would know the exact location of the student," Berryhill said.
She brought the concern to the committee that put the idea together. There, it became apparent that bus drivers didn't even look at the street names.
So that detail was eliminated.
Schools plan to distribute the tags when families visit to get their classroom assignments. Then they'll monitor how the program works for three weeks of school.
After that, Gadd said, most bus drivers know all the riders and most riders know where they're supposed to get off the bus.
Sawyer acknowledged that taking the time to keep track of each student each day could cause some delays.
"But it costs us a lot more time when we're out searching for a child," he said — something the Pasco school district hopes to avoid from now on.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.