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Bus driver helps rural Idaho City district meet student needs

Half of the 66 miles Dowain Geesey drives his school bus each morning and afternoon are on dirt roads.
Half of the 66 miles Dowain Geesey drives his school bus each morning and afternoon are on dirt roads. Boise State University

This is the first of two parts about Idaho City schools. Watch for Part 2 the week of April 25.

You think you know how to multitask? Try driving a school bus in rural Boise County.

Dowain Geesey is transportation supervisor and one of five drivers for the Idaho City school system. He starts his day at 5.30 a.m. with a 15-minute visual check of the bus, drives 66 miles and finishes about 8 a.m. Completely unflappable in a world of stimulation, he continuously checks six outside mirrors (two up front, four on the sides) and one 3-foot-long inside mirror above his head, where he keeps an eye on the 60-plus kids, sitting three to a seat, behind him.

“People ask how I deal with all those kids,” he says. “They’re pretty good really. Now and then, a kid might get out of his seat, or there’s a fight.”

But more important, Geesey watches for any problems before they might get big: a child who spilled all of his birthday cupcakes on the bus, another one who is grumpy or doesn’t want to talk. If he passes that information along to teachers and administrators, they can help sooner.

I spent a recent morning at Idaho City’s school district, which serves some 345 kids, preschool through high school. I wanted to hear about what goes on behind the scenes of a rural school district, beyond what we normally think of — students and teachers — and learn what keeps the place going. That meant spending time with people who drive, cook, clean and fix just about anything that goes on at the schools.

Over the last few months, I’ve been looking at what well-running organizations do to keep things going, and especially the activities that most of us don’t think about, like custodial or food service, security or transportation efforts. Here’s a little of what I learned.

Idaho has 115 school districts. In 108 of those mostly rural districts, there is just one high school, meaning kids may ride 45-60 minutes on a bus just to get to school. In Idaho City, 47 percent of kids are on free or reduced-cost lunches. Some are homeless or are couch surfers or live with their grandparents.

As Idaho City superintendent, principal, and science teacher John McFarlane explains, “We always check their shoes. If they are worn, if the backpacks are tattered or if coats are torn, it could be a red flag of a family in need. And about 25 percent of our families are in that category.”

His district works closely with the Boise County Community Justice Steering Committee, which includes a student resource officer and representatives of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s Children’s Mental Health Program, the county sheriff and the Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections. The group focuses on finding ways to help kids so they can come and focus on school.

McFarlane gestures behind me: “That’s why we keep new backpacks here to give to kids who need them.”

Thirty percent of the high school student body can turn over every year, meaning it’s important to get the students on board as soon as possible. McFarlane and the teachers will sit with new students, one on one, to talk about “who we are, what we believe.” Getting that tone right so kids understand the culture is critical to the school staying positive.

A student who moved recently from Mississippi was surprised, and glad: “Things are different here. No fights, no tension. Teachers are friendly.”

And part of that is because of the bus drivers. As Superintendent McFarlane says, “Those drivers are the first and the last people from our school to see those kids, every day. One of the most important jobs around.”

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