Expanded pre-k puts small kids on school buses

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By Mackenzie Mays 
The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's expansion of preschool means that more small children will have to board regular school buses without seat belts, and ride alongside middle- and high-school students.

Beginning next month in Kanawha County, the state's largest school district, students enrolled in Head Start programs -- some as young as 4 years old -- will, for the first time, board regular school buses.

In the past, those students have had access to smaller, special-needs buses, equipped with restraints.

However, with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's push for universal, full-day preschool services and a subsequent boom in enrollment, access to those special buses no longer will be available because of time constraints caused by overlapping bus routes and additional costs, said Bob Calhoun, head of elementary education for Kanawha County Schools.

"We're going from half-day to full-day [preschool.] A full day of preschool is five and a half hours, and a full day of elementary school is six to seven. With that in mind, the bus drivers just can't do that, physically," Calhoun said. "We've been trying to find a way to transport the kids without making extra runs. We've talked to people around the state and found that a lot of them don't even use aides, and most don't use harnesses, and have been putting [preschool-age] kids on regular buses for some time."

While the national Head Start organization -- which provides child care to low-income families -- requires programs to follow National Highway Traffic Safety Administration guidelines that say students under 50 pounds must be restrained on a bus, Calhoun said the state applied for and received a waiver to be exempt from that policy.

Kanawha County's Head Start students will be required to have one aide accompany them on the bus, Calhoun said, and they will be seated together at the front of the bus, segregated from the older students.

Pratt, Alum Creek and Clendenin Head Start students will act as pilot programs for the transition next month.

Rod Stapler, president of Kanawha County's branch of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association and a bus driver, said it's not safe or efficient.

"A 4-year-old, as soon as they get on the bus, they're asleep. What happens when you hit the brakes? They're going to be rolling down the floor because you're not going to be able to catch them," Stapler told the Kanawha school board last week. "We are all dead set against this -- even the thought of putting a child on a bus like that."

While Calhoun has said cutting out the extra routes currently required for Head Start students will save the school system money, Stapler said there still will be additional costs because the driver will have to drop off the aide after his route, then return to the bus garage.

More than 500 students were enrolled in Head Start in Kanawha County this year, Calhoun said, and while there is no established bus route for preschool students, who currently depend on parents for transportation, officials hope to implement the same bus-consolidation plan for those students, as well.

"There are quite a few school systems throughout the nation going this way," he said. "It's really going to be the same. We've always bused 5-year-olds without a harness. There's very little difference between a 4-year-old and a 5-year-old.

Peggy Whitacre, president of the West Virginia Association for Pupil Transportation, said Kanawha County has long had stricter bus-safety rules than many other school districts in the state.

When Whitacre served as school transportation director for Hampshire County, preschool students rode the regular bus without any supervision.

"Without aides, you have an issue. These kids do not know how to sit down. I mean, they're babies," she said. "But in some places, that's their only means of transportation to and from school.

"With aides on there for the preschool students, they'll be right up there in front with them, so they're pretty confined."

The Kanawha County school board is expected to take up the issue in a meeting next month.