With the 2013 NAPT Summit weeks away, student transportation professionals are looking forward to learning from others, addressing common issues and creating positive working relationships — goals the national organization is also achieving abroad, in countries like the United Arab Emirates.
Located in the southeast of the Arabian Peninsula on the Persian Gulf, the UAE is a federation of seven emirates, each with its own ruler, or emir.
NAPT Executive Director Mike Martin will present “Lessons from Dubai,” at a Summit luncheon Oct. 20, along with other members of the team who attended the UAE’s first school transportation conference in April. NAPT and the Dubai Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) joined forces to stage the event, “Shaping Sustainable School Transportation: Policy, Attitude, Action,” which drew more than 1,200 attendees from some 17 countries.
Alexandra Robinson, NAPT president and executive transportation director at the New York Department of Education (pictured in the front row, above), confirmed that representatives from Dubai will once again attend the NAPT Summit, and at least two will make panel presentations on current initiatives in the Middle East. She explained that each emirate has a specialty, and Dubai focuses on infrastructure and development.
Martin said NAPT and the RTA plan to co-host another conference next year after such a successful collaboration. He and Robinson both emphasized how impressed they were by the emirate’s exceptional organization and hospitality, which led to a true sharing of ideas.
“They have every intention of being preeminent in the transportation arena, and in school transportation specifically,” said Martin. “And they are not protective. They are very willing to partner with others, with us, because it helps them to improve — and that interaction helps us improve, too. They are very serious about it.”
He added that Chris Gawronski will also attend the NAPT Summit this year, coming all the way from Abu Dhabi, where he recently spearheaded a traffic and school bus safety project. A consultant to the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, Garanski pulled together five agencies for this initiative, including law enforcement, education and environmental ministries.
Robinson echoed that officials in the UAE are more progressive than in other parts of the Gulf and truly aspire to be the best.
“They want to do whatever is the best and the safest,” she said. “It’s very exciting because they are building from the ground up. Stop arms? Wheelchair lifts on buses? If it makes sense, they want to implement it. There is not as much bureaucracy so when they make a decision, it happens soon after.”
Similarities and Differences
Martin noted that their decision-making process is not only swift but also smart, as officials tend to rely on key performance indicators (KPIs) and measurements.
“They very rarely make any decision without some sort of data. I think they probably do that to a greater extent than government organizations and entities here in the U.S.,” he said. “They have helped to buttress our KPI project.”
Another thing Martin said he learned in Dubai is that conference sessions do not need to be lengthy to be informative.
“They tend to be a lot more succinct there, so the conference speakers did not talk for more than 15 or 20 minutes each. They say that if you can’t accurately convey your message in that time frame, then you’re not accurately conveying it,” he continued. “We’ve modified the way we’re doing things to reflect that. Our conference this year contains a lot more content in the same amount of time because of our work with the RTA.”
Murrell Martin (no relation), Utah’s state director of student transportation, said he appreciated the exchange of ideas at the conference in Dubai as well as the opportunity to share some of America’s best practices. He recalled learning about a unique training practice there that teaches students to respect the danger zone around a school bus (see photo at left).
“They took a diagram of the danger zone around a school bus and painted it in front of a school. They indicated this is quite common, and they use it to train the kids right there at the school. It’s very visual,” Murrell stressed.
Derek Graham, who heads up transportation services for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, was also impressed by the colorful “danger zone” diagram designed to keep kids safe. He said the Dubai officials are extremely interested in safety and technology, and where the two intersect, just like their American counterparts.
“It’s interesting that we’re all addressing many of the same issues, such as keeping kids safe on and off the bus, dealing with student management and applying technology like GPS to school transportation,” noted Graham, who led a session on technology and security at the conference.
During the group’s tour of a public school, he was struck by the emphasis on student safety training and by the prevalence of “bus supervisors,” their term for bus monitors.
“It was a given that a second adult would be on the bus … like a bus monitor to help with student management. If we were building up our system from scratch, would we say: Let’s put 72 kids on the bus and not put anyone else on the bus except the driver? For them, that is a given,” he shared. “I remember back in the 1990s, representatives from the UAE came to the NASDPTS meetings, so they have been working toward building up their system of student transportation.”
Murrell led a presentation on “Creating a Desire for School Busing Services,” which he said remains an issue in Dubai as well as the U.S. He also shared how the state of Utah has used the ASBC’s Champions Program with its school bus drivers. Also on hand was Ken Hedgecock, the top school bus “evangelist” of the ASBC Champions committee and VP of sales, marketing and service at Thomas Built Buses.
“More people need to know the value of what school buses do,” Murrell added.
During her session on transporting special-education students, Robinson presented “best practices” and discussed ways to manage student behavior. “They’re still just learning about the best ways to transport kids with disabilities and figuring out how to use child seats, lifts, etc.,” she added. “They have centers for students with disabilities. They don’t have as much integration as we have — they are still separated.”
Because of cultural mores, the sexes are also separated on buses serving the schools for local residents and international schools.
Moving forward, she said, Dubai officials are working to implement NAPT recommendations such as expanding training for school bus drivers and monitors, putting stop arms on buses and increasing the number of buses for students with special needs.
“From those recommendations, they will move forward with the Transport Authority to get things done,” Robinson continued. “In the UAE, they really want to do it right. They have the right thing in mind all the time, which is the children and their safety.”
Added Graham: “I found that they, like us, are dedicated to providing safety for the kids they are entrusted with transporting. We have a lot in common, and I think we have more in common than differences.”