Test taking is not just for students

ALBANY, N.Y. - Dec. 30, 2014 - PRLog -- If you think school children are the only ones who have to take tests during the school year, think again.

There’s another group in New York State schools for whom test taking has become de rigueur – bus drivers.

Driving a school bus in New York State is more complicated than it used to be and, yes, there are tests: defensive driving tests, written tests and behind-the-wheel tests. Some of the tests are annual and some are biannual.

“It’s a lot more complicated than it was when I started,” said Marty Dratz, Interim Transportation Supervisor for Berne-Knox-Westerlo (BKW) Central School District in Albany County, mostly the result of the Department of Motor Vehicle 19 A regulations.

There are not just written tests but also physical skills tests that include a test requiring bus drivers to drag 125 pounds 30 feet in 30 seconds, simulating dragging a child out of a bus to safety.

The snow belt

Dratz, 84, first became a school bus driver in 1973. In July, he was hired as BKW’s Interim Transportation Supervisor. He retired from Schalmont Central School District in 1991. Since then he has filled in as interim transportation supervisor for several districts including the City School District of Albany, Averill Park Central School District, Schalmont and now BKW.

“I’ve been going in and helping districts that need to improve their record keeping or testing programs, serving as an interim when someone moves on until another person is hired,” he said.

BKW is currently looking for a permanent transportation supervisor, and Dratz likes to remind his colleagues that he would like “to be gone before the snow flies.” (They hired one in 2013.)

In Berne-Knox-Westerlo that could be sooner rather than later. It’s always the first district to be closed on account of snow because the hill towns catch a lot of snow, Dratz said. The drivers can attest to that.

“I’ve driven through some stuff that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up,” said veteran driver Carlton Jones. He’s been driving for BKW for 35 years and once heard a radio announcer say: “It’s not winter officially until Berne Knox is closed.”

“Sometimes the weather is snow, sleet, freezing rain and high winds all in one,” said Darleen Shrederis, who’s been driving for 28 years. “The terrain that we drive in is very hilly. Some spots are flat but most all buses have that hilly terrain. It’s challenging. I have to compliment the town and county, though. They do a superb job of clearing the roads.”

Challenges beyond weather

Weather and testing are not the only challenges in 2013.

Driving a school bus is “not just dropping the kids off and making sure they cross the road safely,” Shrederis said. “It’s dropping them off and looking at the situation. You go through your mind and ask yourself: ‘Are there normal cars in the driveway.’ You look over the situation and ask yourself:  ‘What’s coming down the road? Are there people alongside the road? Are there trucks working on a telephone pole? Do they look legit?’ In this day and age you need to know what’s going on in your surroundings. And it’s not just at one stop; it’s every stop.”

The kids make it worth their while, however. Both drivers say they’re the best part of the job.

“You can be in a bad mood and they’ll bring you right out of it. They’re just incredible people. If you want to stay young, hang around with young people,” Jones said.

“To see their sparkling eyes when they see something new,” Shederis said. “I’m fortunate that we drive out in the country. If I see a herd of deer I can point it out to the kids. Sometimes we see bear. In my 28 years I’ve seen three bears on my run.”

Team effort

BKW has 38 bus drivers covering 120 square miles, and it’s a very rural district.

“With 900 students in the school district, the bus drivers have to cover a lot of distance,” Dratz said. “And they go outside the district for students who are bused to locations outside the district. The farthest we go out is just before Oneonta with a special needs child.”

Dratz was hired largely because of his credentials. “He’s a school bus driver instructor, a school bus driver Master Instructor and a 19-A Certified Examiner for New York State,” said Mark Kellett, BKW’s Interim Business Official, who worked with Dratz in Schalmont.

At the present time every driver is up to full compliance. “It was quite a bit of work to do it but we got it done. I got a lot of help from the head mechanic, Dave Clark, and drivers and the secretary,” Dratz said.

Dratz was born into the transportation business. His father owned BM Dratz Auto Repair on Long Island. “Dad repaired everything from convertible tops to glass work to wood work on the old woodies to metal work and frame straightening. The car didn’t have to leave the shop for anything,” he said.

The same is true at BKW. While some school districts in New York State outsource their bussing to private contractors like First Student, Laidlaw and Durham, “we have the mechanics right here at Berne-Knox-Westerlo. They do everything here.”

Over the years the job has changed considerably, according to all three transportation professionals.

“It took some time to adjust to the written tests, Jones said. “At first, a lot of people didn’t do well. It was hard. You had to know the air brakes system, the whole nine yards. You really have to study the book and know your systems on the bus.”

But the changes have been good for bus drivers and for kids, he said. Driving a bus is a huge responsibility.

“I always say to people that school bus drivers are the only professionals in the world with all their cares and worries behind them,” Dratz said.

And, these days, a test in front of them.
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