1. The Education Gradebook

Pasco school bus system on smoother course

LAND O'LAKES — Elizabeth Ford had a problem.

Her children got on the bus Monday morning heading to Centennial Elementary School, but when it came time to return home, their driver left them at the wrong place.

In past years, when Ford has called the Pasco School District to complain about busing issues, she waited hours for a call back.

"Now, I got immediate feedback," she said. "I didn't even need to wait for a call back."

The difference was Pasco's new transportation call center, where close to three dozen staffers and volunteers are armed with updated, computerized information on bus comings and goings. When they received calls from anxious parents whose youngsters were late at the end of the first day of school, they could provide answers rather than transfers to the already busy lines of route specialists and principals.

"Take a deep breath, Mom," information services secretary Theresa Lawlis-Papola told one caller whose elementary school bus was running late. "We've got you. … I understand. I'd be freaking out, too."

Lawlis-Papola looked up the bus route on her laptop, confirming it arrived at Veterans Elementary 30 minutes late and left about the same. The woman's daughter had been logged into the new attendance grid.

"It's all good. We've got her. They just left," she said, noting that the parent calmed quickly after getting the information.

Improved communication was key to superintendent Kurt Browning as he ordered a revamp of the district's busing systems, particularly in the beginning days of classes when things tend to be rocky.

Most of the big concerns can be anticipated, Browning said, so the district should be ready rather than just wait and react. His staff created new ways to track buses, froze routes through the second week of school to limit the chaos of change, and trained school employees on how to best organize bus dismissal.

They also set up the call center to field complaints that in the past sometimes wouldn't arrive until days later, usually with pent-up anger.

"I wanted a sense of urgency when we were dealing with transportation issues, making sure parents were getting their questions answered," Browning said as he watched workers field the calls.

Christa Vail, a special education supervisor, said she heard relief in parents' voices as she gave them the information they wanted.

"People are able to call and get their answers instead of sitting at home and panicking," Vail said. "It's been great."

Of course, the changes curtailed the extent of problems. But they did not eliminate all of them.

A handful of the district's 387 routes ran an hour or more behind schedule. Data entry errors led to questions about whether children actually had boarded the correct buses.

Assistant superintendent Ray Gadd said the district would continue to refine its efforts.

"We need to work on the root causes and make sure our routes are right," Gadd said.

It certainly satisfied many of the 1,663 callers on the first day. Numbers shrank on the second day.

"For me, it's very helpful," Ford said.