WCS uses bus drivers to improve student social-emotional health

WARSAW, Ind. (WANE) – Warsaw Community Schools is using its bus drivers for more than just transportation these days. Some of them are now the first step in ensuring students’ social and emotional well-being, something that has become a key focus in the district’s strategic plan.

It all started when WCS received a Lily Endowment Counseling Initiative grant. The district also got financial help from the K21 Community Foundation to make it possible.

Lori Tilden and Krista Polston are on the student wellness initiative team at WCS. They played a big part in getting the grant and getting things rolling.

“The need for some focus on mental health definitely came from our students,” Polston said.

One of the first things the team did with the grant money was conduct student and community focus groups to find out how people felt about student wellness in the district.

Tilden said the results were profound.

“Overwhelmingly the words ‘anxiety,’ ‘depression,’ ‘family issues,’ ‘perfectionism,’ ‘peer cruelty,’ kept coming up,” Tilden said. “Through that research and strategic planning, we sought out the best help for our kids.”

One way they moved forward was with a special bus drivers training that is the first of its kind.

The student wellness team used money from the grant to bring in Lori Desautels, an education professor at Butler University. She led a workshop over the summer with more than a dozen bus drivers in the district.

Desautels focused on how to pick up on suspicious student behavior and crisis indicators. The workshop also taught drivers more about how adolescent brains work and how to interact with them in a positive way. 

Douglas Hast is one of the drivers who attended the workshop. He’s been in the transportation business for more than 30 years, but he’s only been driving children at WCS for the last two. He said the training opened his eyes to a new approach to children.

“I think it gave me some tools to work with,” Hast said. “It helped make me more aware of catching students doing good things and complimenting them on that.”

David Hoffert, Warsaw Community Schools superintendent, said it’s all in an effort to improve student mental health.

“Education today looks a lot different than it did just a few years ago,” Hoffert said. “With students bringing so much baggage into the classroom every day, we have to be addressing their social and emotional wellness.”

Hoffert said utilizing bus drivers is one of the best ways to do that.

“We realized that our bus drivers are the first ones to see a student in the morning, and they realize where that student is coming from,” Hoffert explained. “If something has happened to impact their social-emotional well-being, they’re going to see it, either in the morning, or late at night.”

The new initiative will expand to staff in several different areas over the next three-and-a-half years.

“We’re doing it one step at a time.” Hoffert said. “We’re really making those steps in the right direction, but it starts with awareness, and there definitely is a higher awareness from this training and from the beginning steps of this.”

Hoffert said it’s hard to show concrete evidence of the program’s impact so far because of how new it is, but he’s confident it will continue to have a profound impact on the district in the coming years.