Mornings start early for Forsyth County elementary school students who ride the bus.
Though the school day doesn’t begin until 7:40 a.m., some students at Big Creek and Sharon elementary schools are waiting at their bus stops as early as 6:30 a.m.
Despite those times, about 77 percent of students who attend those two schools ride a bus. That’s the highest percentage in the local school system.
On the north end of the county, even Chestatee — where ridership is the lowest among the district’s elementary schools — nearly 60 percent of students ride the bus.
“We want kids to ride the bus,” said Jennifer Caracciolo, system spokeswoman. “We believe it’s the safest way for kids to get to and from school. But we also recognize there’s all kinds of reasons families have for driving their kids to school.”
For Teresa Cook, transporting three sons to and from two different schools is a well-oiled machine, combining buses and her vehicle.
In the morning, she takes all three of her children to Otwell Middle and Kelly Mill Elementary. While she drives her middle school son home in the afternoons, the other two take the bus back.
“I carpool with two other neighbors, so the three of us take turns with our schedules and it works well,” she said.
But it’s not just the convenience of carpool that made Cook choose not to let her students take the bus, it’s also about location.
“For middle school, it was timing,” she said. “The bus comes at like 8 a.m. and we don’t take him to school until 8:30 a.m. Same thing after school. The bus comes home at 5 p.m. and I can have him home by about 4:35 p.m.”
Lambert High has the county’s lowest bus ridership at 33 percent. Still, Principal Gary Davison said it’s typical at that level for students to seek alternate transportation. North Forsyth has the highest high school ridership, but it’s just 40 percent.
With Sharon Elementary so close, Davison said many parents will just drive both kids at the same time. Also, parents will drive their students in early for the variety of clubs and study sessions that start long before school begins.
“I’ll walk the building at 6:30 a.m. and I’ll notice there are already kids here,” he said. “I notice a lot more kids riding the bus in the afternoon than in the morning.”
Davison said Lambert is unique because of the proximity of homes in the area.
“Part of it is that our neighborhoods are so very close to us,” he said. “Our population in our area is a little more dense than some of the other areas, meaning that they’re actually closer to the building, so we have a lot of walkers.”
At the high school level, Davison notes many students leave early for dual enrollment, work programs and other commitments. Also, a large portion of seniors drive themselves and their friends or siblings to school. And while parking spaces are an issue, that’s probably not going to change.
“They just look at it and think ‘I’m a little too old for this,” Davison said about senior mentality toward the bus. “They kind of think it’s a rite of passage not to ride the bus any longer.”
Davison spoke highly of the bus service for those who do ride, noting that rarely is a bus late.
“It’s one of the safest and most effective ways to get to and from school and a lot of kids will make friends on the bus, so we do encourage that,” he said.
But the principal admits he’s part of the lines of parents waiting to drop off their children at school.
“I drop my daughter off in the morning too, and it’s nice … where we can spend uninterrupted time where we can talk and get her day set,” he said. “It’s a nice time to have and I understand parents who want to do the same thing.”
Garry Puetz, transportation director, said ridership has remained steady in his 10 years with the school system. There may be a 1 to 3 percent increase or decrease, which largely stems from redistricting.
Safety is Puetz’s main concern, which is why he holds many annual events and programs to teach students proper ridership, bus stop safety and how to safely enter and exit the bus.
“The student training is a way to demonstrate to the parents that we’re serious about helping them protect their students,” he said.
The system employs about 295 drivers to run a total of about 70 routes. Some drivers may only have two or three stops, Puetz said, while others handle as many as 25, particularly in south Forsyth, where there are many subdivisions.
Because safety is a concern, Puetz said the system has its own capacity requirements, below the state’s recommendation of 20 percent over capacity — or about 86 kids for a 72-passenger bus.
In Forsyth, Puetz said they aim for 40 to 50 elementary school age kids on a bus, 42 to 54 middle-schoolers and 36 to 48 high-schoolers.
Ridership changes on a daily basis, so Puetz said there’s no way to really know how many students will show up at a bus stop on any given day. That hasn’t typically been a problem, but on occasion, too many students will be waiting at a bus stop.
“They have to call into dispatch, they let the dispatcher know they can’t pick up any other students and we send a bus to finish the route,” Puetz said. “We don’t transport kids sitting in the aisles or standing up.”
For her own children, Cook said she is pleased with the bus system and with the policy on bullying reaching bus activities. When her oldest son was a kindergartener, he was made fun of by a fellow student and the system handled the situation well.
“I was very impressed with the way the school system worked with the bus driver and really cared about the students,” she said. “I did not grow up riding the bus. We walked or rode our bikes to school.
“We feel safe with them riding the bus.”