MEMBER SPOTLIGHT: Stephanie Walker, Habersham County Board of Education

School BUSRide spoke with Stephanie Walker, transportation coordinator at Habersham County Board of Education in Georgia, about her recent completion of all four NAPT certification categories, including Certified Director of Pupil Transportation (CDPT), Certified Supervisor of Pupil Transportation (CSPT), Certified Pupil Transportation Specialist (CPTS) and Certified in Special Needs Transportation (CSNT).

Please introduce yourself and tell us about your background.

I have been in the Habersham County Schools in Clarkesville, GA for 11 years; two years ago I was promoted to Director of Transportation. My professional career at the district began as a school bus driver, then turned to driver trainer, and later I became the transportation coordinator before my current role as director. I am proud to say that I used the knowledge I learned from every position as the building blocks to help my career advancement. 

My path may have always led me here.  I have a psychology degree, which helps tremendously; I never knew a degree in psychology would help so much in transportation, but it does, especially when it comes to transporting students with special needs.  In addition, both my parents are school bus drivers; my dad is driving in his 38th year, and my mom retired in her 36th year. I am a third-generation bus driver, and now my daughter and my son-in-law have obtained their licenses. 

I like to tell people that I have been training as a substitute bus driver since I was about nine years old. That was when my parents started driving and I would go with them on their runs before I began my school day. My history, reinforced by my degree, led me here, I believe it was a calling that finally caught up to me.

What is a challenge that you feel is unique to your district?

Habersham County actually sits in the northeast Georgia’s corner, so I am an hour from South Carolina, an hour from North Carolina, and about an hour from Tennessee. We are in that one little corner near the bottom of the Appalachian Trail, near the mountains of Georgia and we have many state parks, so we get a lot of visitors. We always have extra traffic coming through that tends to delay us more than average. 

We are a large county in size with a lot of rural land, so we tend to travel more miles with less kids in the upper end and more kids with fewer miles in the low end. We also have got the urban side versus the countryside, so we deal with a lot of tiered routing in the central to lower areas, and then we have our traditional bus routes and single bus routes in the upper end. We cover a lot of square miles. There are 135 vehicles in my fleet, which might not seem huge, but our complexities with the way the land lays and the differences within the county require a variety of solutions. I think that is one of our unique points. Some counties are either rural or urban, but we are both.

Habersham is a mixture of unincorporated, rural areas and we have seven municipalities in our county, eight between the county. Each of the different municipalities has its own county emergency services and county governments and I coordinate with all of them, which tends to be more than average. We are big on collaborating with our local agencies, especially emergency responders, our fire departments, law enforcements, and school resources officers. Every one of the emergency agencies that would be assisting us in a school emergency, therefore, it is important to have a strong relationship with each of them. It takes a lot of time, planning, and communication, but in the end, it is those partnerships that will help us in our response time in an emergency. Our partnerships are a main focus here in Habersham, we are trying to spread the word of the importance of getting our school resource officers and law enforcement agencies together in collaboration around the state of Georgia. Another collaboration that I lead is with the Georgia Alliance for School Resource Officers and Educators, helping with instruction and planning for what to expect in an emergency. At the Georgia Association for Pupil Transportation conference this year we brought in that same law enforcement group that was teaching with me which received overwhelming positive reviews. We know there are threats out there to the school bus, and we are not in a school where we can lock down and build a fortress around it. We are transitory and we are moving, so we try to think ahead and prepare instead rather than waiting for something to happen and then reacting. 

As far as the county goes, we are feeling some growing pains right now due to increased enrollment, the creation of new businesses, and manufacturing growth in a neighboring county. All of these factors add to the unique challenges that we are up against. 

How did you get involved with NAPT?

It was 2015 and I was a driver trainer stepping into the transportation coordinator position. I had been to GAPT conference and trainings where NAPT and their certification programs were discussed.  I became interested because I was really embracing my position and my calling in the industry. So, I joined NAPT and started taking classes.

GAPT offers a NAPT course scholarship each year for its members. I started sharing that information with our other members and encouraging them to take advantage of the opportunity. In pupil transportation, it is so important to continue learning, allowing your mind and knowledge to expand because it is an ever-evolving industry.

Even now, I think I have taken just about every class, and I will even retake a few just as a refresher because it is such good information. It is a wonderful asset to have in this industry, even if you are not getting your certification, the classes alone are invaluable. 

Pre-COVID, I attended the NAPT conferences and in 2018 became a certified director. That was well before I ever got the transportation director job, but it was worth it to me. Then it became very important for me to get special needs certification. Continuing education keeps you sharp and, in this industry, it is crucial that we stay sharp because our kids’ lives depend on it.

How does each certification help your professional development, as well as allow you to better service your district?

Each certification is so specific. The director is overall management, leading, and running the department. You learn so many necessary skills which allow you to reevaluate your own department, how it is running and how you can improve. Special needs transportation is very specific as it is federally regulated. Learning and understanding every detail in the subject of special needs transportation is critical for a successful and safe operation.

The supervisor certification brings in a different level of one-on-one versus the overall supervision that a director provides. You get more detailed information about the hands-on operational aspect of transportation students. The specialist was interesting and unique because you learn more about specific details like routing and safety standards. Now no one will ever be a complete expert on the subject matter, we are always learning but the NAPT certification program brings your level of abilities up by a hundred-fold. This program is excellent and extremely helpful!