Retired bus driver Ed Hickert introduced the Bus Buddy program to MUSD. Photo by Raquel Hendrickson

Every weekday morning, bus driver Ed Hickert woke up early and headed down county roads to transport students in unincorporated Maricopa to local schools.

Hickert, now retired, worked for the Maricopa Unified School District’s Transportation Department for five years.

His morning “country route” wound through Hidden Valley, Thunderbird Farms and the Ak-Chin Indian Community. Children on the bus were often on board for over an hour.

“I treated my bus just like a classroom,” Hickert said.

Like any teacher does in his own class, the bus driver implemented rules for his young passengers to follow, ranging from the expected “Don’t yell,” “Stay in your seat” and “Keep your hands to yourself” to the creative, like encouraging children to say “hello” and “goodbye” to Hickert as children boarded and departed.

“I was always big on greetings,” Hickert said. “Every driver has his challenges with school bus discipline. Some do better than others, but being in the Marine Corps, I’m pretty big on discipline and insist on certain protocol.”

But as most parents and educators know, children don’t always listen.

Transportation Director Tom Beckett said MUSD transports over 3,000 students to and from school daily, with a usual ratio of one driver to nearly 70 students.

Disciplining boisterous passengers on a bus is not only a challenge, Hickert said, but a distraction that could cause danger on the road.

A conversation with his friend Judson Taylor, retired president of an east coast college, spurred an idea that took Hickert on a year-long journey to transform the experience of students and bus drivers alike.

“What do you do to encourage good behavior on your bus?” Taylor asked him.

Hickert didn’t have an answer.

Inspired by Taylor’s concept, Hickert created an incentive program for school bus passengers.

It’s called “Bus Buddy” and the program rewards students who exhibit positive behavior and perform good deeds on the bus. Each driver sets their own goals and describes the kind of behavior they want from their passengers.

For the children who exceed expectations, their driver will make a public presentation, reward them with a “bus buddy” pin, and a certificate that will also be sent to their classrooms.

Sergio Pulido, MUSD transportation coordinator, said he was intrigued by Hickert’s program when he pitched it inside his office.

“It’s something positive that we’re putting out and hopefully it’s an incentive for kids to better behave themselves on the bus,” Pulido said.

After briefing bus drivers and school principals, district officials adopted the program and ordered 1,000 pins for approximately $2,300, Beckett said.

It’s an investment he is optimistic about.

“There is a level of risk with any new program, but the initiative aligns very closely with the positive behavior strategies we are implementing at our school sites,” Beckett said. “Any assistance we can provide to our drivers that encourages good student behavior is worth trying.”

Beckett said the program should be fully implemented on MUSD buses in December or January. Hickert said other school districts in the county and in the Valley are considering adopting the program as well.

Student Guidelines:

How to be a “bus buddy”:

  • Treat other students as you want to be treated
  • Set a good example for other students
  • Be respectful to the bus driver
  • Say “good morning” and “goodbye”
  • Help other students
  • Sit by a student who needs a friend

Driver Guidelines

  • Describe the behavior you want: Eliminate using the words “don’t” and “no.”
  • Identify and reward positive student behavior: Based on your criteria.
  • Make the “Bus Buddy” pin award special: Make a public presentation with adoration and fanfare.
  • Sign and date the certificate of achievement: Send to the student’s classroom.

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