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The Bus Story

Soapbox is an occasional feature in which educators express their unique points of view. In this essay, former NAESP president Dr. Paul Young wonders if unrealistic demands are turning American schools into runaway school buses: driving too fast without enough direction.

Dr. Paul Young is a retired elementary school principal and a past president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP). He writes a column for Education World called Young @ Heart. The text of this article is from an address he gave as NAESP president.

Anyone traveling down America's rural highways or maneuvering through its towns and cities during the school year is familiar with the yellow school bus. People often know and respect the driver, and those of all ages hold dear and would do anything to protect the community's treasures the buses are transporting.

At interscholastic events such as high school football games, where schools of different communities come together, people feel great pride when the buses from their schools travel past. The American school bus is a familiar icon of the public school system. Yet, the American yellow school bus is very much at risk. Some are trying to privatize bus service. Drivers pass in disregard when the warning lights are flashing. Some parents choose private transportation to avoid overcrowded and unsafe bus conditions. Every American driver's worst nightmare should involve being at fault in an accident with a yellow school bus.

There are many similarities between bus drivers and principals. Both steer their "vehicles" containing their charges. Both like to follow a daily routine, but learn to adapt as roadblocks surface. Most prefer to assign seats. When they discover problems, they make adjustments. Really? Principals can do that?

I've worked in schools where some people have taught in the same classroom for more than 25 years. They've never known another assignment. All too frequently, those individuals appear to be in a rut. To them, change is frightening. When principals realize a different assignment (reassigning the seats) might result in a better alignment of ability, experience, and talent, they experience great resistance from "passengers."

Like drivers, principals must have the authority to change seat assignments, just as they must be allowed to only put the people on the bus who agree to get "on board" for the common good. Principals' lack of authority to handle these issues are major obstacles in schools' ability to reach high levels of cohesiveness and student achievement.

Also, like bus drivers, principals face daily roadblocks, potholes, detours, and disrespect from "road rage" affected citizens. They are expected to do more with less. Most people would be outraged if a bus began a route without passing a required safety screening; yet they will tolerate decrepit, unsafe, and outdated conditions in the schoolhouse. They will demand that free bus service be provided in cash-strapped districts, yet they won't demand that lawmakers pay for the many state and federal programs legislated upon the schools.

Now, the requirements and expectations of the No Child Left Behind Act are pushing school officials to meet what many are calling unrealistic schedules and timelines. It's like a bus driver having to change a flat tire while the bus is rolling down the highway at record speed. Everyone is afraid to pull over and take the time to fix the problems. Limited resources and lack of autonomy to make important decisions are forcing many veterans to turn in their keys. That leaves the least experienced drivers responsible for solving problems they didn't create. We must pull over and look at the map. If the map is outdated, it's time to draw a new one.

Driving buses and running schools used to be fun. They still can be. They must be. The jobs are too critical to the welfare for our nation's children.

Americans must regain their respect for the bus, the drivers, and all those who strive to support their important work. If we don't pull over, rethink the map, get the people in the right seats, and begin moving in the right direction down the right road, we are going to experience a serious mishap. The American public school system is on the road to a major accident that could result in permanent injury to its precious cargo.

Let's learn some lessons from the bus we all know and rode before it is too late. Let's stop! It's time for doing some necessary maintenance and upkeep, redrawing the map, assigning seats, and moving forward with caution to avoid causing a major accident with a yellow school bus -- or a red brick school building.

Read another article by Paul Young, What Would Dad Say About Education Today?