Hawkins Elementary bus riders Krystin Farmer, 2nd grade, and Taylor Burton, 4th grade, do homework on their way home.
Rena Sehnert's morning begins on a dark, empty school bus with a mini flashlight in her mouth.
It's 6 a.m. and she's checking the engine to make sure everything is set. It is, but the bus still won't start.
"We may need to get a jump," she says, as other buses in the pre-dawn darkness begin flashing their red lights and test equipment.
Miss Rena, as the kids call her, has been doing this for nearly 18 years, but on this day things begin just a few minutes late as she waits for a mechanic at the bus yard on Hill Avenue to come get the bus started.
When the 40-foot behemoth hits the road, it does so with a familiar rumble. You can hear the windows vibrating and feel every bump in the road as it grinds its way to the Old West End, the central city, and north Toledo, picking up small pockets of students headed to Grove Patterson Academy.
This is how it begins - 1.9 million yellow-school-bus miles a year for Toledo Public Schools.
The district has a fleet of 170 buses transporting up to 9,400 kids across the city daily. More than double that are eligible to take the TARTA buses to school. It's a daily process that mirrors the mood swings of the bus occupants: sometimes timid and sleepy-eyed, at other times frenetic and playful.
After a couple of no-shows, 12-year-old William Dunn is the first student to hop on board Miss Rena's bus at 6:50 a.m. William sits on the edge of his seat, legs in the aisle. A seventh-grader, he says he's the oldest kid on the route and the jokester of the bunch. But it's too early for that just now.
"That's why we bring breakfast," he says. "I have Big Texas Cinnamon Rolls."
His younger buddy, Montrese Marshall, 9, gets on the bus soon after and talk eventually turns to Halloween costumes.
"I'm gonna be Freddy Cougar," William says. Or at least it sounds like that over the din of the bus. "I like his hand."
William's ride will last 50 minutes, even though his bus stop is only 5.2 miles from school. A decent marathoner could run the distance in less time - time that could be spent eating those cinnamon rolls at home or getting a little more sleep.
Lots of districts face the complaint of long bus rides. In this case, the trip to Grove Patterson is so long because the school draws kids from across the city. Service to local junior high schools and elementary schools usually is much less - between 15 and 35 minutes, according to district officials.
Each of the kids on this bus finds a different way to wile away the time.
In front of William, second-grader Cynthia Perez, 7, has just finished her homework, slipping a folder back into her cute Strawberry Shortcake backpack. Her brother Andrew, 5, sits nearby looking outside, head wedged between the seat in front of him and the window. Another student quietly draws "robo thunder," a robot with claws and cleats for breaking apart ships he attacks.
It's a long, quiet ride, lasting until 7:41 a.m., but the kids don't seem to mind. After making the drop-off, Miss Rena drives to a nearby strip mall parking lot, where a handful of buses are killing time before their next route.
"This is the layover hangout," says Miss Rena, 48.
A fellow bus driver pops in the door with a cup of coffee and offerings of cookies. They talk about how to keep order - "High school kids, you gotta be psychological with 'em. Hollerin' won't work." - and how they help their needier riders by giving them gloves or coats or "finding" lost lunch money that never was lost.
They have their share of dealing with disciplinary problems. Miss Rena remembers one young man who seemed to utter an expletive with every other word. Later, she read in the newspaper that he had killed his stepfather.
Many TARTA buses have video cameras that help with the problem. Last year, they captured a fight between two junior high school girls that resulted in four arrests at the scene and misdemeanor charges for violating the safe-school ordinance. The district's fleet of yellow school buses includes 16 with video, but the equipment is expensive and assigned to routes with discipline problems.
Miss Rena's bus doesn't have one and doesn't seem to need it. Her strategy is not to butt heads with the few trouble makers she crosses but to co-opt them. Rather than yell at one student earlier this year, she simply asked her to sit closer to her - so she could help with safety procedures.
After a 30-minute layover, it's back on the road for Miss Rena, this time for a small run of five kids to Lincoln Academy for Boys. Even for such a small busload, there's still a hierarchy to how things are done.
Tyler Womack, 9, the first to be picked up, knows this. He sits in Seat No. 1, across the aisle from the driver, but he wishes his assigned seat was No. 2 behind Miss Rena.
"He gets out first," he explained.
In the afternoon, it's hot and the windows are open. Miss Rena's first stop at 2:30 p.m. isn't anywhere near the places she visited earlier in the day; it's Rogers High School, west of Reynolds Road.
The teenagers who saunter up to the bus and show their ID, or need to be reminded to bring it next time, are in their own worlds. One sits and reads a giant textbook, one bobs her head and sings to herself, another talks on his cell phone.
It's surprisingly sedate for a group of young people just freed from the bonds of learning. Some just look exhausted as they wait out the short ride home. (It sure doesn't look like they got the nine-plus hours of sleep a leading sleep researcher suggests the average teen requires.)
Next it's on to Hawkins Elementary School on Bancroft Street, where Miss Rena is greeted by Trey Fisher, 9, who takes a transfer bus here from another school.
"Can you drop us off first?" he asks. He's thirsty and he wants some Kool-Aid - whatever flavor is in the fridge. Unfortunately, his arguments (and his own set of directions) are unable to convince the driver.
As the rest of the students pile on the bus, there's some energy. These kids are tired of school and ready to play basketball and ride bikes. A girl digs into packages of Cheetos and Suzy Q's while two others try to slap each other's hands and bang on the seat.
When a large group gets off at a park, there is immediate horseplay - swinging back packs at each other, putting little brothers in headlocks.
And then, suddenly: silence. No more students chirping on the bus, just the whiz of the wind shooting through the open windows.
Contact Ryan E. Smith at: email@example.com or 419-724-6103.
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