Ohio’s Largest School District Buys Bus Navigation Technology

Columbus city schools, with 834 buses, has spent $1 million in federal grants for tablet computers with GPS that will display bus routes and announce turn-by-turn directions to drivers.

by Alissa Widman Neese, The Columbus Dispatch / August 22, 2019

(TNS) — For years, bus drivers for Columbus City Schools have transported thousands of children every day by reading their daily routes printed on sheets of paper.

That has been the industry norm, experts say.

But when the district's 843 buses begin transporting students back to school Thursday, they will be equipped with cutting-edge navigation technology. Tablet computers, programmed in advance and powered by cellular data, will display bus routes and announce turn-by-turn directions to drivers, functioning similarly to a traditional GPS system.

Eventually, all of the district's students who ride buses will receive identification cards programmed with their routes. They'll sync with the system to ensure kids board the correct bus, and to monitor if they make it to and from school safely.

The district, which is the largest in the state with more than 50,000 students, spent about $1 million to install the equipment, mostly using federal Title I grant money that is distributed to schools that have a high percentage of low-income students.

"This makes it so much easier for our drivers to do their jobs and for us to service our families," said Steven McElroy, executive director of transportation for Columbus City Schools.

"Regular GPS takes you from point A to point B. This system is much more intricate, routing you seamlessly from point A through point Z."

The devices, called Tyler Drive, were created by Tyler Technologies, a Texas-based software company that made Versatrans, the district's longtime routing software. The district's student information system feeds data into Versatrans, which then determines the most-efficient routes.

Such devices are gaining popularity nationwide, though districts have faced some hurdles in implementing them, including cost and antiquated laws prohibiting their use, said Steve Simmons, president-elect of the National Association for Pupil Transportation.

Simmons retired as transportation director in Columbus in 2017, when plans to install such a system first began.

Youngstown City Schools started using Tyler Drive that same year.

Four more Ohio districts — Vinton County Local Schools; Canton City Schools; and Plain Local and Green Local, both north of Canton — also plan to use the devices, said Ted Thien, vice president and general manager of Tyler's transportation solutions group.

Every day, Columbus City school buses transport about 40,000 students across 700 routes throughout the city, making it one of the largest transportation departments in the country, McElroy said. That figure includes district students and students attending nonpublic and charter schools.

Sometimes, new or substitute drivers may have trouble navigating an unexpected obstacle, such as construction, so instructions given in real time will make the process more efficient, he said.

McElroy's goal is to have 95% on-time performance this school year. The district's on-time rate from last year wasn't available, spokeswoman Jacqueline Bryant said.

The student identification cards, meanwhile, are still in a test stage in Columbus, with 10 schools using them this year, McElroy said. Students also can use the cards to check out books at the Columbus Metropolitan Library and to access learning technology in their classrooms.

The goal is to gradually start using the cards districtwide, he said.

Eventually, the system could be integrated with real-time bus-route monitoring for parents, Bryant said. For now, parents are encouraged to sign up for "bus bulletin," which provides notifications through text messages, emails or phone calls if a bus is delayed.

Rachael Stickland, co-chair of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, a Colorado-based advocacy group, said such systems could prove controversial among parents, many of whom oppose collecting student data and schools allocating resources toward surveillance tools.

"It might be convenient, but it adds another layer of risk," Stickland said.

Others disagree.

Larry Fruth of New Albany, co-founder of the Student Data Privacy Consortium, said if the navigation software doesn't let drivers access student data, it likely isn't a privacy risk. His group shares free resources and strategies about how to secure data such as student grades, disciplinary actions, medical conditions and contact information.

Its members include more than 8,000 school districts, as well as organizations, agencies, policymakers and businesses. Tyler Technologies is in the process of joining the group, Fruth said.

"You hear nightmare stories of kids left on school buses or kids who didn't get to school," Fruth said. "Even if you don't know where they are in the school, in this situation, you'll at least know if they got on or off the bus."

©2019 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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