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The School Bus: Then and Now

Published: April 28, 2014

How many of you have fond memories of riding the bus to school? Did you know you were participating in a tradition that children in the United States have been doing for over a century?

Today, school districts have extensive busing programs. According to their website, Saint Paul Public Schools provides student transportation service to over 39,500 public, non-public, and charter school students attending over 179 schools and self-contained programs. Buses pick up students on the street corner and drop them off a few miles away. But the first school buses were meant to move rural children over long distances that were impractical to walk, often from their families’ farms to school.

The first “school hack” was made in the 1880s and was more like a horse-drawn wagon. Children entered at the back so they wouldn’t spook the horses. Over the years, the vehicles were motorized and began to be made from steel instead of wood, but school buses have changed surprisingly little over the decades.

1939 marked a turning point in the industry; that year, industry officials held a conference to standardize the production of school buses. Among other things, they agreed upon its color: yellow. School bus yellow was chosen because it is easy to see in almost all conditions and makes black lettering stand out. These days, some school bus roofs are white to reflect sunlight and make the inside temperature cooler.

In rural Minnesota, some districts face increasing challenges in pupil transportation. According to a legislative report published in January 2013, school leaders in Marshall—a small school district in southwestern Minnesota—have noticed that changing demographics in their district are affecting transportation. A larger proportion of their high school students now come from immigrant families. Those students may be more likely to rely on the bus than drive their own cars to school.

Also, there are more students enrolled in early childhood special education, who often require specialized transportation. These factors and increased emissions standards for vehicles add to the cost of supplying school bus transportation to rural communities.

The important role school buses play in getting students to school on time cannot be understated. And as districts continue to assess the best way to serve their community’s transportation needs, it is a field that will continue evolving.