Student transportation couldn't have been much worse at Connerton Elementary on the first days of classes last year.
The car pickup line snaked through the Land O'Lakes neighborhood out toward U.S. 41, preventing buses from getting to the campus on time for dismissal. Checking student bus attendance took too long, leaving children either sitting in hot vehicles or waiting in a hot line. Once they got moving, some children didn't arrive home until close to 7:30 p.m., nearly three hours after the school's final bell.
Anxious parents who called for information got a busy signal.
"It was a nightmare," principal Aimee Boltze recalled. She's confident there won't be a repeat this year.
Superintendent Kurt Browning, angered by the poor performance on what was his first opening day of school, demanded a reboot of the district's outdated transportation model, with an emphasis on customer service.
Multiple meetings later, the results include new ways to track buses and students, a district call center with plenty of phone lines and standardized operations at the schools.
"They uncovered a lot of things that are going to be changed for the better," said Boltze, who tested some of the new initiatives at Connerton during the spring.
Perhaps the biggest move is the decision to freeze bus routes at the end of June, and leaving them as-is through the second week of school. A year ago, the district received and granted 4,000 bus route change requests between orientation and the first day of classes.
"That's what causes chaos," Browning said. "The die has been cast. Whatever we have in our system is what we're going to go by."
Ray Bonti, district executive director of operations, said he expected parent confusion to disappear this go-round, because the routes and stops will not shift unexpectedly.
Parents received bus assignments in May, and had until late June to make corrections. Drivers have practiced set routes.
Now, if students wish to get on or off elsewhere, or if new students enter the system, they will have to use existing routes and stops. "We will make adjustments after everything settles down," Browning said.
The initiative went beyond routing.
"We had a systemic problem with the way we did busing," Bonti said. "We had basically 80 different schools doing 80 different things."
One key concern was taking bus attendance.
Boltze recalled that she had kids climbing onto buses one at a time, with the driver checking the roster against name tags. It proved cumbersome.
Connerton adopted a "bus room" where students would go before heading to the buses. A school employee takes attendance there and passes it to the driver, speeding the process. Boltze said she plans to use the system all year, to keep track of kids long after the early confusion dissipates.
Once the students are on the buses, the next step is to have better information about where the buses are.
To that end, the district implemented a new system called "My Bus Loop," in which schools use a computer application to mark when each bus arrives and leaves. It's so easy to use that some pilot schools assigned students to run the program.
It's also powerful as a communication tool. With a simple tap on the "here" and "gone" buttons, schools send out the real-time details on whether the buses are running on time.
If they're behind, officials can react accordingly, including sending phone calls and text messages to families on the routes. The district requested phone numbers and email addresses in the spring.
The district also is upgrading its on-board radios, taking over the county government's old frequency for emergency operations. And by January, the buses should have GPS systems on board.
During the first two weeks of school, the district will run a call center that will have access to attendance and route details. Bonti said it will have about 45 lines and employees available to answer parents' questions and concerns, replacing the busy signals that had been the norm.
The point, Browning said, is that everyone knows the first day of school is coming, and it shouldn't bring added stresses such as wondering where your child's bus might be. These improvements eliminate much of the guesswork, he said.