Dothan City School Transportation Director Jay Bruner and Superintendent Phyllis Edwards said student safety was the No. 1 priority when determining the bell schedules for all city schools next year.
The new staggering schedule approved at Monday night’s school board meeting became a controversial matter for some parents worried about the disparity in dismissal times between the elementary and junior-high schools, the two largest groups of bus ridership.
The bell times are as follows:
>> Grades kindergarten through sixth: 7:40 a.m. – 2:10 p.m.
>> Grades seventh through ninth: 8:30 a.m. – 3:50 p.m.
>> Grade 10-12: 8:10 a.m. - 3:10 p.m.
Currently, there are 76 buses completing about 154 bus routes around the same time in the mornings and afternoons, according to Bruner.
Busing students from three schools with similar start and end times has been a challenge, Edwards noted, creating safety concerns.
Bruner said that students spending longer times on the buses and on campus long before school starts create an environment for disciplinary issues among students. Because of an existing shuttle system purposed to place students at holding stations – Dothan and Northview High Schools – principals are having to take responsibility for students who they are not familiar with because they do not attend their schools.
Additionally, some kindergarteners are riding buses with 12th graders, which may cause concern among parents.
“An advantage of staggering times is that students will ride with their peer groups,” Bruner said.
Under the system in place, students will be placed on buses with others of the same age level in regards to elementary, junior high and high school students.
A staggering bus schedule will also allow the transportation department to maintain a fewer number of buses. The department has already sold some of the older buses that are part of the 98 in its old and aging fleet, a large majority of which are more than 10 years old – much more than the average of other systems in Alabama.
Instead of spending money repairing and maintaining older buses, the system can dedicate the money to buying newer buses that will lower monthly insurance premiums and have costs that are reimbursed at a significantly higher level by the state.
Officials said another reason for the tiered system is to promote a more efficient school day for school administrators, teachers and students.
Because students will be dropped off shortly before the school day begins, all children will be able to attend school breakfast.
Bruner also said the system is currently understaffed with bus drivers. Under the new schedule, the fleet will be adequately staffed.
Another reason for the schedule, Edwards said, is the necessary turnaround time for buses to return to a different school to pick up children. Under the schedule, all buses should be waiting at the elementary schools by the time they are dismissed and ready to board.
After those students are dropped off, buses are expected to return to Dothan Preparatory Academy or Dothan High School to complete the same mission, requiring at least 40 minutes, Edwards said.
The spaced out bus schedule is not a new one, but rather something that is implemented in various places around the country, and has saved districts money and correlated with student success.
A 2014 study conducted by The Children’s National Medical Center’s Blueprint for Change Team outlined the effectiveness of changing from a traditional bell schedule system-wide to a stacked one; evidence showed that many school systems saved hundreds of thousands in transportation costs, and saw improved attendance and GPA’s.
In an interview, Edwards said that she hears and understands the concerns of parents who carpool their students and is working with principals on getting a program in place for after-school care at the elementary schools and possibly a before-school program at the junior high.
She is also working with a committee to work on getting dismissal times closer together, something she believes is likely. Edwards said that change may have to come by shaving some time from the Dothan Preparatory Academy schedule to reduce their school day.
Edwards will have to bring another discussion to the school board at a later time, likely before the end of the school year, to amend the bell schedule.