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Hortonville tests tracking students on school buses

GREENVILLE, Wis. (WBAY) — The Hortonville Area School District pulls over school buses on an average of once every two weeks to locate children who are not where they should be. New technology hopes to eliminate the need for those stops while giving parents peace of mind.

A total of 76 school buses in the district pick up students at stops along 56 routes.

“What they tell you right from the beginning is to make sure you get the kids to and from school safely,” said Kevin Sturn, a bus driver and parent in the Hortonville Area School District.

A bus driver for nearly 10 years, Sturn says part of student safety is keeping track of where they are while traveling to and from school. It is a task, he says, that is growing more and more difficult.

“There’s so many more mixed stops where one week the child gets off at mom’s house, one week they get off at dad’s house, so it really isn’t a regular ride. There’s so many more student activities that it really is hard to say that all of the kids regularly ride.”

The school district has used GPS to track the school buses for years and is taking one step further to increase safety.

“We’re one of the first ones in the state,” said Harry Steenbock, transportation director at the Hortonville Area School District. “I don’t believe anyone around the state has gone to student tracking.”

He says the school board recently voted to expand testing of the UniteGPS System from two buses to 12 buses.

“We’ll give the student a card. We program the card to fit the student with the name, and it will actually have a picture on them, also,” said Steenbock.

The students scan their card as they get on and off of the school bus. The student’s name, address and bus stop show up on an 8-inch tablet placed on the dash near the driver. That information allows drivers to see who is on their bus and if they are supposed to be there.

“When we do the 4K orientation with the new 4-year-old students, I always tell the parents, ‘We misplace kids, but we’ve never lost one.’ We always find them. This is a tool to make sure we find them a lot faster,” said Steenbock.

The system allows parents to access real-time location information for their students and the buses online and through a smartphone app. Parents will also be able to sign up for text alerts from UniteGPS letting them know when their children get on or off of the bus.

“The way I see it, the administration is really following their own rules where as technology changes, they’re doing the best they can to make sure that we’re doing our jobs,” said Sturn. “The main part of our jobs is to make sure kids get to and from school safely.”

Steenbock says he still has concerns about the impact the system will have on how long it takes to load the buses after school. There are some questions remaining about security as well.

The transportation director hopes to address those questions and make sure everything is working properly this spring. His hope is to see UniteGPS expand to all buses before the next school year.

It is a pricey investment at an estimated $150,000 for installation costs and an annual operation fee of $45,000.

Courtney Terlecki

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