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Shuttle system serves students, earns recognition

The Covid-19 pandemic has tested and forced teachers and administrators alike to rethink virtually every element of providing education and support services - including the means of getting students to and from schools.

The hybrid learning model that’s been in effect for so many school districts - with some students learning from home and others opting to attend certain classes in person and others remotely - presented a daunting transportation challenge.

“It was a puzzle,” said Cathy Johnson, District 214 Associate Superintendent for Finance and Operations. “We were discussing, for instance, ‘Do we really want students in the buildings for study hall if they want to come in for only one period? How do we make this intermittent student presence possible during the day, and then how do we accommodate student transportation in the evening, when students are practicing tennis or choir?’ ”

Enter 214 Purchasing and Transportation Supervisor Nicole Hansen, whose out-of-the box thinking led to a transportation model to accommodate and provide maximum flexibility for all students in these unprecedented circumstances and whose work has been recognized with a Tyler Award, issued by the company whose traffic routing software company proved an essential component of the solution.

Hansen set aside traditional time-and-route solutions that simply did not apply to this school year and began, instead, to sketch out the concept of a public transportation system, with buses running fixed routes repeatedly throughout the day. 

“I remember thinking that college campuses have students going back and forth all the time, so why couldn’t we do something similar?” Hansen said. “So what we’ve done is more of a shuttle run. I realized that we could effectively have our buses go in circles so that students could go home when they want to and jump on to attend in-person classes or activities after school, more like Pace or CTA routes.”

This led to District 214 adopting an entirely new, cost-neutral system focused on flexibility instead of traditional routes. The District developed a system of about 65 shuttles to serve about 12,000 students in an area of almost 70 square miles. Johnson and Hansen’s team first selected stop locations to ensure that all eligible students had easy access. Next, they strategically divided stops into shuttle routes so that each route could make a round trip within a single period of 214’s block schedule. Shuttles would pick up students from stops just in time for them to get to school before each period, and shuttles left shortly after each period’s end to take students back home. The shuttles continued until 7:30 p.m. to accommodate students participating in after-school activities and athletics. 

In addition to the home-to-school shuttles, 214 had shuttles to take students from their home school to other campuses, internships and special programs located throughout the community. 

“Our buildings love the flexibility and I know students are availing themselves of it,” Johnson said. “We really had to come up with something new and Nicole knocked it out of the park. It was important for parents, some of whom didn’t know what their own schedule was going to be like, to have reliable transportation for their students and not have to worry about that.”