The Other Yellow

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It was about five minutes before eight in the morning when the cell phone ringer interrupted what would constitute as rush hour in St. George, Utah, a quaint high-desert community nestled between Zion National Park and the state’s border with Arizona and Nevada.

A school customer of American Logistics, a taxi dispatch, management and routing company founded in early 2007, was calling sales rep Chris Thomas to point out that contracted drivers had dropped off students 12 minutes early for school, normally a sign of highly-efficient student transportation.

But in this case, the morning’s service to a Phoenix-area school for troubled youth was a bit too capable, as the campus in question could not offer playground supervision by a teacher until exactly 8 a.m. The administrator asked Thomas if he could make sure the taxi driver could show up a few minutes later next time.

Thomas explained to the customer that she’d have an answer by early morning. Exactly a half hour later, both the cab drivers in question were reminded of the strict drop-off policy and the school administrator was notified that the problem was resolved. The students’ parents were also contacted and informed their children would be picked up a couple of minutes later each morning. Case closed.

“We’re all about belly-to-belly management,” said Thomas.

It was just the beginning of another day in the life of American Logistics.

A visit through the majestic crimson cliffs and carved gorge of nearby Zion National Park can be life changing. It is a must-see if one ever visits the area.

Peaks and valleys can be a good way to describe taxis used in student transportation. The other yellow vehicle, cabs have been used for years especially in the nation’s larger urban areas to assist in special needs transportation. The late Peter Grandolfo, an industry stalwart and champion of IEP students as transportation director of Chicago Public Schools and an NAPT board member, found taxis, when properly researched, to be a fine companion to school buses.

But American Logistics, founded in January 2007, is a wunderkind of sorts, as it utilizes its expertise of the taxi cab industry to provide a service unparalleled in the country. But there remains plenty of people, especially school bus professionals and parents, who balk at the notion of allowing taxi drivers to ferry school children, some as young as age three all the way through high school.

American Logistics’ Thomas likes to say that the best hunting partner is a lean, hungry dog. Despite school contracts in at least five states, not to mention government and paratransit contracts across the country, the company is as thin as they come. Formerly known as Call Oscar, the team consists of four Southern California-based executives with the entrepreneurial vision supported by a team of programmers, two supervisors, and two teams each of a dozen dispatchers, routers and schedulers headquartered in the growing hamlet of St. George.

“If you’re talking to people who don’t want anything but a school bus, it’s not going to fly,” said Alexandra Robinson, transportation director at San Diego Unified School District, which contracts with American Logistics to transport 11 special needs students to certain services around the city. “But at least you know the driver has been trained. It’s important that they are training their drivers to the same standards we do.”

Non-dedicated vehicles such as taxi cabs, vans and shuttles are nothing new to student transportation, but they can be unreliable as districts have traditionally been held hostage to the schedules of the local taxi company as well as the qualifications and performance record of the driver. Student transportation was relegated to simply one more fare in the queue, and districts, parents and students alike rarely knew the driver. Taxis have also been snubbed in favor of the traditional yellow school bus for safety reasons.

“You call a cab, and you don’t know who you’re going to get. Safety is a concern,” said Bill Hoosty, a school transportation consultant based in Syracuse, N.Y. “But then, does the person know the kid, and has a relationship been established?”

Still, yellow cabs, paratransit buses or other community van services are widely utilized in areas nationwide for addressing those problematic trips that seemingly every school district encounters. In today’s environment of high fuel prices and increasing operational costs in general, regular education and regular special needs can alone break a transportation department’s budget. Things grow even messier when school districts must find additional transportation alternatives. There are those few special needs students who require regular transportation to IDEA-required therapy sessions. And, inevitably as well as unfortunately, there’s a student who is homeless and who may sleep in three different shelters, miles apart from each other, in the very same month. Add into the mix at-risk students who have been expelled and must attend alternative schools, and the districts are responsible for their transport, and schools can quickly become overburdened.

That’s where American Logistics steps to the forefront.

Irvine Unified School District located about halfway between San Diego and Los Angeles, contracts 90 percent of its regular and special needs routes with Durham School Services and operates four of its own buses for special needs. But for a handful of students the school bus is not an option. For example, one high school boy needs a reclining wheelchair that was unable to be properly secured in a Type A bus.

“For the children who have special needs and require special handling a school bus can’t provide, we call American Logistics, and they always come through,” said Rose Clegg, Irvine’s transportation administrator. “It took a long time for me to start using them because I’ve always felt the school bus is the safest means of transportation. But they’re very reliable, very professional. If you are put in a position where you are unable to use a yellow school bus, they are there to help. They are on-time, and the parents love the door-to-door service.”

Using proprietary dispatch, routing and vehicle tracking software developed by Egor Shulman for the traditional taxi fare-paying public, American Logistics maps out the locations of these students burdened with special circumstances and fixes their routes from point A to point B and then subcontracts with “cream of the crop” veteran drivers who oftentimes own their own vehicles. All the while, the company can literally watch every one of its taxi subcontractors via GPS.

“When you’re in transportation and you’re dealing with special education students, you need a company to rely on,” said former school bus driver Rebecca Lopez, now Irvine’s special needs dispatcher who collaborates with American Logistics.

It’s a win-win for all involved, claim company representitives, as school districts can not only save much-needed money, some or all of which can be reimbursable in by states, but also rely on American Logistics’ promise to certify all taxi drivers to school bus certifications. For the benefit of their cab and paratransit subcontractors as well as the students and parents they serve, all approved drivers must pass full state and federal background and drug/alcohol checks and survive the FBI’s national sex offender registry check. Depending on the route requirements, the company also puts drivers through pupil management courses and trains them in child safety seats or proper wheelchair securement and tie-down procedures. Each vehicle and driver is also guaranteed with insurance policies of either $1 million or $5 million, the latter a requirement at San Diego Unified.

“Plus, they’re able to get kids on very quickly,” added Robinson.

And schools — and parents — retain complete control of the driver pool. Drivers attend IEP meetings and will pay visits to students’ homes to introduce themselves to parents before the service begins. If a district or parent doesn’t like them, the company will find another.

“It’s that kind of attitude that allows them to stay in business, because we all know a school bus is going to be safer,” added Pete Meslin, transportation director at Southern California’s Newport-Mesa Unified School District. “But there are transportation companies that will go the additional mile because they have to overcome the stigma.”

Meslin is well-acquainted with American Logistics. He first heard of the company when he was the IT manager at San Diego Unified, and Newport-Mesa has since contracted with American Logistics.

Despite a good working relationship with the company, Meslin said another alternative available to him and some neighboring school districts is a special contracted service, or co-op, an idea helped along by the California Association of School Transportation Operators (CASTO).

“We use other school districts first,” said Meslin. “We’ve established a county-wide agreement to make it easier for school districts to opt in to buy additional service. But, that said, there are times when you have to take kids out to the boonies.“

Meslin recalled an instance when Newport-Mesa had to transport a student to attend a required, educational service some 40 miles north to Palos Verdes in Los Angeles County. The Orange County contracted service allows Meslin and his participating peers to arrange special accommodations necessary to keep students on the yellow bus.

“We try to place students in programs near the district because students are here to be educated not necessarily to be transported,” he added. “So, educationally, we know that’s not necessarily best for the student, but if that’s the only program available, you have to get them there.”

Irvine’s Clegg added that the co-op is especially good for scheduling field trips.

Carlsbad Unified is yet another American Logistics client that seems to have nothing but good things to say about the evolution of service. Carlsbad did away with its own transportation several years ago, save five district buses and drivers for special needs routes, and entered a joint operating agreement with other local districts. However, as of last year, Carlsbad was the only remaining member. So it turned to American Logistics.

“We solicited proposals this time last year and got no proposals from companies that operate yellow school buses,” said Walter Freeman, Carlsbad’s assistant superintendent. “Providers for special needs are very limited.”

After Carlsbad determined American Logistic’s proposal was the most cost-effective for the service level, the company began transporting some 150 additional special needs students. While there were admittedly some bumps in the road to start, including not enough drivers immediately available with the proper training to provide special needs service, Freeman said “training seems to be working pretty well.”

“Checking references is never easy. We knew without any doubt that we were going to hear there were start-up problems, and that’s what we heard because their business model is very different,” Freeman said. “Just not having the yellow school bus alone is a major change. And it’s a dramatic change for parents who are understandably protective of their students with special needs.

Chuck Acker is Carlsbad’s director of operations and transportation.

“Day to day there’s a lot of coordination that needs to go on between bus drivers and special education,” he added. “Their success is due to their front-line supervisors, who are completely responsive. I really have to credit them.”

Reprinted from the June 2008 issue of School Transportation News magazine. All rights reserved.