Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) members help students ride the bus in September while helping direct traffic for parents at drop-off/pick-up for the K-2, 3-5 reconfiguration of Greywolf and Helen Haller elementary schools. Sequim School District officials have started conversations to consider changing bus routes to improve attendance and behavior, among other things. (Michael Dashiell/Olympic Peninsula News Group)

Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) members help students ride the bus in September while helping direct traffic for parents at drop-off/pick-up for the K-2, 3-5 reconfiguration of Greywolf and Helen Haller elementary schools. Sequim School District officials have started conversations to consider changing bus routes to improve attendance and behavior, among other things. (Michael Dashiell/Olympic Peninsula News Group)

Sequim schools consider two-tiered bus system

Secondary students could start later in day

SEQUIM — Sequim School Board directors got a look at a proposal that would split their single-tiered bus route system in two, with elementary-aged students picked up and dropped off first and secondary students in a later run.

Superintendent Regan Nickels and transportation director Don Hall presented details in mid-December of what a two-tiered system could look like.

Nickels said the intent is to have board directors consider the proposal and discuss it as an agenda item in January, and if there is interest, to gather more information both from stakeholders such as staff, parents and the community, and information from other school districts who have made a similar transition.

The current, single-run system funnels bus runs through the parking lot at the school district’s stadium on West Fir Street located between Sequim High School and Helen Haller Elementary School.

That system, Hall noted, puts student bus riders, elementary through middle and high school grades in one spot with a lot of pedestrian traffic, while Greywolf Elementary in Carlsborg also sees crowded pickup and drop-off times.

A two-tiered system would see a set of Sequim buses pick up students on the east side of Sequim and another on the west and make stops at both elementary schools, then do a second run to transport secondary students to school.

Bus ramps

The system, Hall said, could instead utilize bus “ramps” already built into each school campus: Helen Haller has a lane between the main parking lot and its buildings; Greywolf has one on each end of the front parking lot (and a third lane possible going to the back of the school); Sequim Middle School has two lanes, one circling the front parking lot and a second between the gymnasium and West Hendrickson Road; and Sequim High School has a lane between the main lot of North Sequim Avenue and the campus.

“Part of what this (proposed two-tier plan) is doing is dropping the kids right off at school,” Hall said.

A two-tier system could then use the stadium parking lot for parent drop-off and pickup for Helen Haller Elementary students.

Greywolf parents could use either the north or south end of the main lot not being used as a bus lane, Hall said, or use the lane that goes to the back of the school — though that may be problematic with it being located between the school and its playground.

“I would prefer to not have any vehicles go behind (the school) whatsoever,” Hall said.

Nickels said there was discussion of a two-bell system in May 2022 but it was tabled because the school year was coming to a close.

“We still need to explore what the community is interested in now,” she said. “Wellness is the ultimate goal, and safety is also a goal.”

Pros and cons

The two-tiered transportation system, Hall said, has a number of advantages and challenges.

Among the benefits, Hall said, are safer pickups and drop-offs at each school; improved sleep patterns for secondary students with a later start; increasing elementary-age ridership; reduction in tardiness; improved student behavior on buses, and fewer buses on the road (from about 18 to 14 for each run).

“We’re running some routes now that aren’t routed very efficiently,” Hall said.

The shift would keep students in the younger grades together and secondary students together, rather than the current system that puts the district’s youngest and oldest students on the same bus rides.

“We did this (shift) at a district I was at, in the same situation, the same system,” Hall said. “We had a lot of parents saying they didn’t want their kids riding with secondary kids.

“When you separate the grades, the student management and student behavior really gets better.”

Hall also said having fewer buses on the road helps with the struggle to find bus drivers.

“There are several school districts that have gone to this over the last couple of years, and one of biggest reasons … is a bus driver shortage,” Hall said. “It would help us with our … shortage.”

Nickels also noted an updated plan will likely help more students get to school and be on time.

“Our district right now is challenged … with attendance statistics,” she said.

Having the secondary students start later, Nickels said, is based on research that indicates the older students’ academic success is affected more by “wake-up time” rather than younger students’ success, which is affected more by their “bed time.”

The change to a two-tiered system could result in some negatives, Hall said, including some longer individual routes; increase in fuel costs (mitigated somewhat by likely fewer maintenance issues); early dismissal for secondary students from their final classes, and childcare issues for elementary students.

Hall said districts on such systems have had to find solutions for student-athletes having to leave for events before the later bell; some have mandated classes late in the day that are not “core” classes.

“Usually your athletes maintain a good grade average, and that’s even with missing some classes,” Hall noted.

However, school board president Eric Pickens said he worries that adjusting a school’s offerings to meet the transportation plan might adversely affect some students

“I would caution against painting that with too broad of a stroke,” he said. “We wouldn’t want to unintentionally prevent some students from feeling like they can participate just because they’re on a different track.”

Some parents have also complained about bus routes being extended for upwards of 90 minutes due to the reconfiguration of the elementary schools prior to the start of the school year.

Next steps

Hall said that, if the board chooses to pursue a two-tiered system, next steps would include forming a transportation committee (including school administrator(s), representatives from staff union groups and Sequim Elementary PTA and two at-large positions), testing out the routes and bus flow at each school, and answering/researching questions from stakeholders, including those from staff, parents, the community and the school board.

Feedback from the community, school board directors said, could take the form of listening sessions, public forum(s) and surveys.

“I think the more we get of that kind of feedback, the better,” board member Larry Jeffryes said. “I’m sure there are negatives to this (plan) that we haven’t thought about that there are solutions to.”

Major issues to consider when making the change, Hall said, include staffing and fuel costs, safety issues and how routes will be configured.

Nickels said the district would also have to consider after-school options as families adjust to the new schedule, but that resources such as the Sequim unit of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Olympic Peninsula can be a big help.

Nickels said a key will be to see how other school districts, such as Evergreen (Vancouver, Wash.), Camas and Lake Washington have handled the move from a single to multi-tiered transportation system.

“I think we need to be very thoughtful if we move forward in asking other (districts) and hearing from them,” she said.

The Toledo School District, Hall said, has a two-tiered system that sees elementary classes run from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., with high school classes from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and middle school classes slightly later, from 9:10 a.m. to 3:40 p.m.

Vancouver’s school district has gone to a three-tiered system, with elementary classes running from 8:20 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., middle school classes from 9:20 a.m. to 3:50 p.m. and high school classes from 8:35 a.m. to 3:10 p.m., Hall said.

Nickels said that, if board directors are interested, the district can implement a later start time but remain on a single-tiered bus system.

“There’s not an all-or-nothing here; we can separate issues,” she said.

If the board finds there isn’t interest in a two-tiered system, Nickels said, “we simply move forward.”

________

Michael Dashiell is the editor of the Sequim Gazette of the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which also is composed of other Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News and Forks Forum. Reach him at editor@sequimgazette.com.

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