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South Bend headteachers optimistic about transportation changes

SOUTH CURVE — South Bend neighborhood Leaders say they are pleased with progress in getting students to school on time after society passed sweeping changes to transportation this year.

Last fall, district leaders restructured school start times by giving elementary, middle and high schools separate pick-up and drop-off times.

Administrators say moving from a two-tier to three-tier transport schedule has allowed the company to streamline services and reduce late arrivals.

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Transport director LaToya King said 95 per cent of students now arrive at school on time in the morning, a 60 per cent increase from last year.

The three-tier system has also helped the department reduce the number of drivers needed to navigate routes, saving more than $2 million in operating expenses.

“The three-tier system works,” assistant manager Greg Dettinger said. “We’re working with 32 fewer drivers and we’re on time. If we didn’t have the three-tier system today, today we would have 40 to 50 routes an hour to two hours late.”

Transportation, for years, has been a pain point for South Bend families and staff, with latecomers routinely wasting valuable class time over the past school years.

School districts across the country are also grappling with work shortages caused by the pandemic.

Some Michiana districts quickly pivoted to remote learning this winter after calls due to coronavirus positivities and quarantines stretched already thin transportation departments.

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South Bend, however, was not one of those districts.

“We make it work with the three-tier system,” King said. “We have drivers who don’t have a second or third tier who have been able to take over.”

The changes this school year seem to be paying off. Several school board members, who have in the past expressed frustration with the system, applauded the transportation department for its work this school year.

And requests from parents are also down. Last year, the transportation department received more than 9,700 calls per month. King said the total is now down to less than 800 calls per month and the department’s responsiveness to those calls has improved. Transport staff now answer about 95% of calls to their service, up from 65% last year.

“As a parent, you confronted me in public as an angry little parent looking for my bus,” South Bend Board Secretary Stephanie Ball told the team. transport at a meeting on Monday evening. “I can definitely say that I haven’t had to be an angry little parent, so we know there is improvement.”

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The South Bend School Board approved new resources Monday evening to continue to build on the progress being made in the department.

New tablet technology will cost $322,000 in the first year and about $60,000 to renew each year. Another contract to help modernize driver timing will cost about $30,000 per year.

“As you tie that in to the efficiencies we’ve already had and the $2 million in savings, that’s going to keep growing,” Dettinger said. “The cost savings will far exceed the cost and purchases of these two solutions.”

With the approval, the transportation department plans to roll out the technology that will streamline driver timing and provide real-time updates on bus locations and estimated arrival times at schools.

New dashboard tablets will provide GPS direction, which Dettinger says is important for replacement bus drivers operating on unfamiliar routes. The technology will save around $60,000 to $70,000 typically spent on printing paper circuits.

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Dashboards are also designed to scan students’ school IDs and ensure students get on the correct bus — a mistake Dettinger said his department often sees among elementary school students.

ID card use among students has already been piloted in two South Bend schools and is expected to be phased into schools during the fall semester.

Email Carley Lanich, education reporter for the South Bend Tribune, at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @carleylanich.