The school year is in full swing at Helen Keller Middle School, and the message Principal Steve Clapp wants to share with students and parents is this: “Ride the school bus!”
Increasing bus ridership for the 2023-24 school year is a key goal for Clapp after traffic congestion became a major problem last year. Keller, with a population of 285 students, had seen as many as 130 parent drop-offs in the morning during the 2022-23 school year, creating a traffic nightmare.
The drop-off area has a short driveway and no parking spaces. It lacks the capacity to handle anything close to that much volume. The issues extend well beyond the school property.
“It doesn’t take much to back it up to Sport Hill Road,” said Clapp. “Then the buses can’t get in, and the buses can’t get out. It all really muddles the whole thing up, and kids are late and the buses are late.”
The traffic not only affects students and faculty, but also anyone who takes Sport Hill Road on their morning commute. Heavy traffic leads to safety hazards, according to Easton Police Captain Jon Arnold. There were a number of minor accidents last year, which could be directly attributed to the traffic generated by the high drop-off volume.
“We were getting complaints from citizens that were just trying to pass through there on their way to or from work in the morning or afternoon,” said Arnold. “We were getting complaints from the parents because they were stuck in traffic, and we were getting complaints from the bus company because the buses couldn’t get through.”
“We were also having safety issues with the police officer out there because there was just so much traffic that people were getting short-tempered and going around people and doing crazy things, putting the officer out there at risk,” he said.
Keller does not have a contract with the Easton Police Department for traffic control services. The officers who help direct traffic in the morning take time out of their patrol to assist with the rush. When there is a call, however, they are forced to respond, leaving school officials to handle the situation on their own. Days with a particularly high call volume may lead to not having a traffic officer at all at the school.
An important result of having more students riding the bus is to ease the strain on Easton police.
Building Beneficial Skills
Middle school is a time when kids begin to learn independence and executive functioning skills. Getting into a routine with taking the bus can be beneficial in building these skills, according to Clapp. However, one direct result of the lingering effects of Covid is that the number of students who are riding the bus is now much lower.
“We are living in a milieu where kids were not properly socialized on how to ride the bus, so we have an opportunity now to make sure that those kids do know how to use more public transportation than just mom and dad carting them around,” he said.
Riding the bus can also teach kids “soft skills” like being patient and waiting for your turn, which Clapp considers extremely important.
“We know that adolescent habits take about 14 days to set,” said Clapp. “We had two years of parents and children being trained on how to go to school.”
You can’t easily reset the habits formed by Covid, he said, by just saying “OK everyone, pandemic’s over, everything back to normal.” It takes a concerted effort to form new routines and habits.
This is why Clapp is asking students and parents who might still be on the fence about it to give the bus a serious try for at least two weeks. Further, riding the bus is also a great opportunity for kids to develop social skills and create lasting friendships with their peers, he said.
Clapp acknowledged there are certainly legitimate reasons for parents driving their kids to school. While taking the bus is a great place for kids to develop friendships, riding in a car driven by a parent creates an opportunity for familial bonding. Additionally, the car is a good place to have some of the difficult conversations every parent needs to have with middle-school-aged children.
As Covid era practices continue to change back to a pre-pandemic state, however, Clapp wants to get as many kids on the bus in the morning as possible.
“It got blown up a lot by the pandemic, rightfully so,” he said. “Parents were concerned about putting kids on buses, especially when a lot of (parents) were remote working. But now that we’ve kind of gone through that, it’s really time to reset those norms and get kids back on the bus.”
In service to this goal, Clapp partnered with the Easton Police Department to deliver a message to parents and students encouraging them to get on the bus.
“We have an excellent relationship with the school,” Arnold said. “We went up there and spoke to them and said, ‘What can we do to make next year better?’ We came up with this idea that we could encourage people to get back on the bus. That reduces the amount of cars stuck on that driveway in the morning, and that stops the backup onto (Sport Hill Road). We seem to be having some success with it.”
The outreach is paying dividends so far. Drop-off numbers went down to as low as 47 in the second week of the school year. Both Clapp and Arnold are hopeful the numbers will continue to drop for reasons of traffic safety as well as for the skill-building and friendships that kids develop when taking the school bus.
“Now that we’re in the full swing of the school year, we can get the kids on the bus, they get there on time, they get there safely, and we don’t cause as many traffic issues,” said Arnold.