When it comes to starting the new school year off on the right foot, Wilson Focus School is always the guinea pig for the Omaha Public Schools.
Because the school follows an extended-year model, students headed back for the first time Thursday morning, more than two weeks before other OPS schools open their doors Aug. 15.
And that means all eyes were on the buses Thursday.
“It was a good start today,” Wilson Focus Principal Bret Anderson said, with all buses arriving before the start of school.
After a rough start to the 2016-17 school year, when a driver shortage led to late and no-show buses that affected as many as 3,000 students, OPS and busing contractor Student Transportation of America have felt the pressure to improve.
The two entities started drawing up and sharing bus routes sooner, went on a hiring blitz and contracted with a call center to provide one central phone number that parents can call with any transportation questions or problems.
Busing went smoother during the first day last year, and Anderson said he’s optimistic that this year will follow suit.
This year, 13 buses will transport 222 students in grades three through six to Wilson, near 51st Avenue and F Street. All 13 buses dropped off students before the 8 a.m. start time Thursday, although one cut it close by arriving around 7:54 a.m.
“There are some things we need to work on to make sure we get students to school on time for breakfast, but just some minor alterations,” said David Prince, vice president of operations for Student Transportation. “We’re pretty happy with how the first day went.”
Prince said word-of-mouth and signing and referral bonuses have helped driver hiring this year. Student Transportation has roughly 370 drivers for 323 general education bus routes. OPS also contracts with Chief School Bus to pitch in on an as-needed basis. The district handles special education busing in-house.
“Sometimes people take jobs just because it’s a job,” Prince said. “We want people to take the job because they want the job and they love children.”
The number of bus routes has dropped sharply since OPS implemented a new student assignment plan last year that reduced the number of schools that students could opt into and still catch a bus ride. In the 2016-17 school year, there were 476 bus routes, which fell to 373 routes last year.
The district is also trying to fill up buses, not send out half-empty buses, to improve efficiencies in moving kids around.
Officials estimate OPS saved about $7 million in busing costs last year.
Drivers will make practice runs on Aug. 9, but Student Transportation is encouraging them to get behind the wheel and practice driving routes even before that, Prince said.
Parents should receive bus schedules by mail no later than the first week of school. The OPS transportation hotline, at 531-299-0140, will be up and running again.
At Wilson, students hoisting Pokémon and zebra-print backpacks and wearing their first-day-of-school finest climbed off the bus and were greeted warmly by school staff.
“Are you ready? That’s the word of the day for today,” Assistant Principal Chris Moats said as she welcomed back students.
District officials have been working on readiness too, by meeting on a weekly basis to plan for the first day of school.
“I believe the best surprise is no surprise,” new Superintendent Cheryl Logan said last month. “The news I want to hear is it was a great, smooth first day, we don’t have any kindergartners who fell asleep on the bus.”
That has happened before in OPS and other districts — in 2016 a preschooler was left on a small school van operated by another contractor for hours, and in 2015 a 5-year-old girl with special needs was also left behind on her bus.
Drivers are supposed to walk the bus and hit a button at the back to indicate they’ve checked the bus for any sleeping or left-behind students.