Two serious but really different topics

by Vince Durnan, director

A look at USN's bus fleet and transportation staff, and an urge to pick up "Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis" by Robert Putnam

Welcome to December, temperate climes notwithstanding. It feels like a long while since my last trip to the keyboard. Two things leap out amidst the daily doings of school as we know it:
 
First, everyone in the school world continues to feel the tragedy of the Chattanooga school bus crash, a reminder on many levels of the importance of safety as an immutable priority. Just two weeks ago, at our biweekly administrative team meeting with a dozen leaders from every facet of USN’s program, we devoted time to a practice drill about a transportation emergency. Suffice to say the reality of what we heard a week later shook us up. While early reports point to a singularly terrible combination of bad judgments and dubious oversight, that situation has our full attention.
 
USN’s bus and van fleet, parked end to end in the Vanderbilt University lot across from Greer Stadium, numbers in double digits. When I arrived at the dawn of this millennium we had one USNA purchased bus and a single hardworking minibus. Now we have vehicles of varying sizes and designs, and we have a group of full-time drivers who are among the most beloved and esteemed figures on campus, supervised by experienced, caring transportation managers who know us inside and out—just listen to our students. Those professional drivers make a daily difference here. They get us out into the neighborhood and well beyond. And the miles we travel collectively would circle the globe annually. Really.
 
Protocols regarding which vehicle to use for what trip, how best to keep things in good repair, and how to guarantee the best possible training are of necessity much more clearly defined and established now. We’ve made a conscious choice to do for ourselves what many schools contract out to third party services, and we are convinced what we do is a better choice. We continue to ask ourselves what best practice in transportation looks like. With that backdrop, we then encounter, in a city not far down I-24, an event that generated the same number of fatalities that a typical year would produce in the entire nation.
 
What to do? All eyes turn to the seat belt question. Shouldn’t everyone in one of those intentionally bright yellow-painted buses be belted in, like they would be in any of our own cars? Perhaps so, but recall that those bus seats, with the high backs and padding, were designed to encapsulate their occupants in the event of an accident. My sense is they were made that way to address the challenge of a driver or even an additional adult non-driving chaperone, keeping 50 plus students buckled up—how easy is it for you to keep that guarantee for even three or four students in a minivan?
 
It remains to be seen how a retrofit of those buses would work, structurally and practically, with shoulder harnesses mounted to cross at neck level for little people in those high-backed seats. The buses we own with seat belts attached already have entirely different designs. We’re going to pursue the retrofit option and determine if that cost would, in fact, be greater than the price of a new bus altogether, and we will continue doing everything we've been doing to build a culture of safety in USN transportation—relationships matter as much as hardware, I'm convinced—but they both surely matter.
 
And if you are still reading, here’s topic No. 2: a book recommendation. Just last Monday I was fortunate enough to hear Robert Putnam, noted sociologist and "Bowling Alone" author, at the VU Student Life Center. His recently released book, "Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis," documents growing changes in educational opportunity over the past few decades. Fair warning: it’s not a happy holiday tale or beach reading. Putnam roots his observations in what has happened in his own hometown of Port Huron, OH, on Lake Erie—classic Rust Belt stuff. What was once an economically integrated while still otherwise admittedly imperfect social dynamic in the 1960’s is alarmingly more skewed two generations later.
 
The disparities—the opportunity gaps, as our scholar-guest last month Rich Milner might describe it—connect to the difference that college-educated parents can make for their children when it comes to extracurricular programs, to reading at bedtime, and to a host of other metrics. And to the difference that a college degree can make from school through life for the children of this and succeeding generations.
 
It strikes me that these are in many respects the advantages that USN students often enjoy. Not to induce a guilt trip, but we see year after year the benefit of camps and lessons and story books and income stability at home. And we are raising young people whose lives will intersect with children who have not had those experiences. Or maybe worse, whose lives may include the possibility of avoiding those intersections altogether—and at what social cost? Witness just this month the result of the growing tendency toward two Americas.
 
The optimistic note Bob Putnam sounded when concluding is that when last our nation’s resources were this barbelled, at the end of the Gilded Age, the modern high school came into being, and with it the tremendous opening of opportunity. It's a little early for New Year's resolutions, but mine would be that USN engages as directly as possible in the next leap forward for education, creating that next and needed big step toward diminishing economic isolation, for our kids and for all kids.
 
Embracing the chance to set a high bar,
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