Taking the bus to school

Maria Novoa and Jessica Jasso sit in a Pierce Cinema class at the LAUSD Bus Driver Training site on Sept. 12, 2018, in Van Nuys, Calif. Photo by Sonya Miller

A route for most bus drivers usually ends at the last stop, but for these employees it ends in the classroom.

The Program for Accelerated College Education is partnering with Los Angeles Unified School District bus drivers the give them the chance to take classes during a split shift.

PACE Director Joleen Voss-Rodriguez has set the curriculum in motion and said taking part in classes will help  promote the bus drivers within LA Unified. Rodriguez said most of the workers get approximately $600 reimbursed for enrolling in different classes each year depending on their bargaining unit.

“They have money where they can have their college fees and tuition reimbursed after they take the classes and they pass the classes with a grade of ‘C’ or better,” Rodriguez said. “Any kinds of fees that they have incurred toward their education LA Unified will cover that.”

Rodriguez said this program has been around for many years and wanted to bring the same opportunity to the bus drivers.

“I think it’s really important for them to be able to continue to advance their education while they are working so they don’t have to take off work for them to get their college education completed,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a really nice time for them to study.”

Adjunct Professor Robert O’Neil is teaching a cinema class at the bus depot and said he is fairly impressed with the non-traditional group.

“A lot of these people are first generation college students in their family to go to college and that’s really exciting,” O’Neil said.

O’Neil said the bus drivers are a cohesive group and PACE has brought them together.

“They know what it’s like to be a little bit older or to be working full-time and going to school,” O’Neil said. “It gives another group of people who are especially women a chance to get a college degree.”

Rodriguez said the bus drivers work a split-shift and have a big gap of time in between shifts.

“The bus drivers are driving kids in the morning and dropping them off at school and then they have time off,” Rodriguez said. “They have to go pick up the children after school and drop them off as well.”

O’Neil said his students are confined to a tight schedule with many responsibilities.

“They have a break in the day and can’t take a night class,” O’Neil said. “They are driving in the hardest city in the world driving in LA and then being responsible for children of all ages including special ed children and special needs children.”

Valerie Hall, a bus driver, works part-time for LAUSD and said the program is a motivation for a lot of the bus drivers involved.

“This class here is going to help us further our education for the bus drivers that possibly want to move into management,” Hall said. “Once you have associate. degree, you can be a system supervisor.”

Rodriguez said students involved in the PACE program tend to have higher success rates.

“So instead of studying for four classes at a time, students can study for two classes the first eight-weeks, two classes the second eight weeks and they are still a full-time student,” Rodriguez said. “So, this leads to greater success because now students are focusing on two classes at a time.”

O’Neil said PACE students can get their degrees faster on average.

“PACE students can theoretically get their community college degree within two years,” O’Neil said. “If you go full-time you get 60 units and you’re ready to move on to a four-year school.”

Hall said it is important students know that PACE is available and offers eight-week hybrid courses.

“We don’t have to go to a college,” Hall said. “We can come to our workplace on our down time and have the classes presented to us, which is a really good thing.”

Bus Driver Jamie Feenstra said the program is beneficial to the bus drivers.

“It’s awesome, I love all of the professors,” Feenstra said. “We are able to achieve something that we’ve put off for so long.”

Feenstra drives a 60-mile round trip route from Carson and West-Hollywood to Van Nuys each day as a bus driver. Feenstra said the district covers the bus fees and said it is her second semester with PACE.

“It works with our schedule and we’re are able to take the GED requirements for the programs we are all going for,” Feenstra said.

Rodriguez said the bus drivers are a close cohort that assist one another.

“They develop this great community and they have this really nice relationship with one another,” Rodriguez said. “They really truly are the essence of a learning community which we think is really fantastic.”

The former PACE director and LA Unified Transportation Services Manager Sheri L. Armstrong worked together to get the program started for bus drivers, according to Rodriguez.

It is possible to take PACE classes at the bus driver depot while concurrently taking classes at Pierce. The PACE classes are offered at the Van Nuys Bus Driver Lot Mondays and Wednesdays.