Working with this technology and partner to ‘serve our community well’
Karen Torres instituted a new motto this year at Whittier Union High School District: “We want to serve well.”
Torres is the transportation director at Whittier Union, a district located in Los Angeles County, California, just 10 miles from the heart of the city. She oversees the transportation of 1,300 students, with about 75 percent of those students having special needs.
Serving well is imperative. And it goes beyond transportation.
“We don’t want to just transport well. We want to do that to the best of our ability,” she said. “We want our students to be safe. We want our parents to feel like their students are safe. We want to serve well all the way around. Our students, our parents, the teachers that we deal with, the staff that we deal with at other districts, and our people, our drivers.”
Torres can’t repeat the motto enough.
“We want to make sure we serve them well and they’re taken care of so they can go out and serve our community well.”
Critical to serving well is having a technology partner that comes alongside Torres and her team. And she emphasis the importance of her team.
“It truly is the team that I am surrounded with that makes us successful,” she said. “They are proficient, dedicated, passionate and believe in what they do.”
Transfinder is part of that team.
“We want to serve well and Transfinder is helping us do that, partnering with us to give us the tools to communicate that we are taking care of your students,” she said. “Transfinder gives our office staff the tools needed to create efficient and safe routes and communication tools necessary so our drivers are then able to give life to the meaning of ‘serving well’ and they do that faithfully, daily. If I had a bus-riding student, I would want them to ride our buses.”
Since 2018, Whittier Union High School District has been providing its own transportation to its students and five feeder elementary districts as well as other students in the region.
That followed three decades of being a member of a transportation co-op. At the time of the break from the co-op approach and bringing transportation in-house, Whittier Union turned to Transfinder for its routing needs. Most of the employees once working for the co-op became district employees. It meant they had more skin in the game, Torres said.
Whittier Union, formed in 1900, is made up of five comprehensive high schools, a continuing education school, an alternative studies program and an adult school. It has five partner elementary districts. It has 90 drivers and a fleet of 125 buses.
When Torres removed the word “interim” from her title as transportation director following her predecessor’s retirement about a year ago, she wanted to dive deeper into Transfinder’s technology and understand what its full capabilities were to serve her community.
“We sat down and said, ‘What is Transfinder and what is it all about?’” Torres recalled. “And then we started realizing, ‘Oh my goodness! It does this and it does this?! We had access to all this technology for several years, but we weren’t using it fully until really this past year. We are just using it [Transfinder technology] to its full capacity.”
Torres is impressed with how fast her routers finish the job with Routefinder PLUS.
“The speed in which they’re able to route has been great,” she said.
‘Long list of things I love about Routefinder PLUS!’
Now to be sure, the district has been putting Routefinder PLUS to work. Just ask router Susie Lima.
“I have a long list of things I love about Routefinder PLUS!” she said. “It definitely has become more user-friendly the more we use it.”
When asked about specific functions she likes about Routefinder PLUS, she quickly rattles off a number of aspects.
“The Reports feature has streamlined how information is sent and received to our partner districts,” Lima said. “Rather than wait for the districts to send us lists of their student riders – many of whom do not even utilize transportation – we can now provide them with lists of our current riders and the lists are edited with incoming students. This eliminates the amount of time spent waiting on the districts to compile lists for us, thus giving us more time to create trips for the upcoming school year.”
In addition, Lima said comparing and editing multiple trips “is so easy!”
“Moving students from one trip to another is just a click and draft away. Love it,” she said.
Lima said it is also much easier to change and edit directions.
These rave reviews of Routefinder PLUS just reinforced the district’s comfort level with Transfinder as a technology partner and gave Torres the confidence to expand the use of Transfinder technology in her transportation operation.
“The routing system has always been great. But there’s Stopfinder and Wayfinder, and all of that is what we’re just now starting to tap into,” Torres said, referring to the parent app and driver app, respectively.
‘If you can use Facebook, you can use this application.’
“We started using Stopfinder halfway through last school year. We pushed the app this year when we sent everybody their routes. We pushed information to parents. The feedback that we have gotten has been very positive.”
For those parents intimidated by the technology, Torres has a ready answer: “If you can use Facebook, you can use this application. And that really is true.”
She has seen a drop in calls to the transportation office as a result of implementing Stopfinder.
“Just having the communication piece has been great. Parents get updates in real-time and it lessens the phone calls. We can use that time elsewhere in the office,” Torres said. In the summer she plans to have an in-person training workshop on Stopfinder to help parents get comfortable with the tool.
Torres is also planning to launch Wayfinder in early 2023. She likes the ability for drivers to take attendance on a tablet right in the Wayfinder app.
“It just made sense to have one program and have that accessibility right there,” she said. “And just being able to get away from the drivers having the route papers in their hands or on their own phone with GPS. In California, if you’re even on your phone it’s a huge, huge fine.”
Torres also is eager to start using Formfinder, a tool that digitizes any form and is customizable to create any form as well. Formfinder comes imbedded in Routefinder PLUS.
“We have bus incident reports and document everything that happens on a bus,” she said. “It could be a behavior incident. It could be an unusual occurrence that a driver might see. It could be ‘Karen fell getting on the bus and scraped her knee.’ Everything goes on a bus incident report. So, we’re looking forward to having those.”
Torres said in the past five years the district has filled multiple filing cabinets with bus incident reports.
“Just being able to have access to these reports at our fingertips, we’re looking forward to that,” she said.
Training is critical
The district just had training on the latest technology and she said her drivers are excited to make the change.
“I’m glad we did the training. In-person training is the way to go,” and added “Transfinder’s training was what ignited excitement in her team and removed concerns because it was so user-friendly. The training calmed fears that some of her team may have had about “messing up.”
“You really can’t,” Torres said. “If you mess up, it’s going to redirect you. You’re going to be able to go to the next stop.” And Wayfinder ensures that the safety measures put in place when the routes were created in Routefinder PLUS remain in place, such as right-side pickup, even as it redirects a driver.
"Any district that is considering taking on Transfinder, especially larger districts, would benefit from in-person training,” she said. “I really believe that it was one of the best things we did. It was so professional and thorough."
"To that district that thinks, 'we want this; we're just so overwhelmed,' I say do it!? It's definitely the way to go."
Torres said one function that she is excited to implement in her department is the ability to allow drivers to access other routes via Wayfinder.
“We have a lot of railroads we can’t avoid, which will delay routes at certain times,” she said. “So, if we need another bus to assist, having Wayfinder could take the bus from where they are to where they need to go rather than having to come by the yard to get a route copy and then figure it out.”
In short, drivers can assist their colleagues by picking up portions of their routes.
Whittier Union, like other districts, has challenges covering all its routes. Torres said all the routes are covered “when everyone is here” but absenteeism, long-term sick leave and field trip demands have created challenges. The district is looking to fill 20 positions. Still, their neighboring districts have been reaching out to her district for assistance. Torres said adding technology such as Wayfinder and Stopfinder will make her district even more attractive to recruits, both younger drivers and older drivers.
“In this industry drivers talk,” Torres said. “These are great tools. If I can do it, you can do it. That’s what I tell parents on the phone. If I can do Stopfinder, you can do Stopfinder.
Transfinder’s immediate assistance
Torres is big on supporting her team. She’s impressed by the support her team gets from the Transfinder team. In fact, Torres sees the Transfinder’s staff as extensions of her team.
“The assistance that they get with any issues they have is immediate,” she said. “And it’s thorough. The program is not only fast, it’s easy. But the assistance that they get when they’ve having a hard time is instantaneous.”
That is imperative as Torres continues to stress upon her department the importance of “serving well,” that slogan she adopted this year.
“We’re just excited,” she said. “These tools and resources will help us serve our community well.”