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Robbinsdale’s amazing bus app is a life-changer

It’s about time we caught a break from the dictates of transportation.

There’s revolution in the air.

Robbinsdale Area Schools is rolling out an app that will tell parents and students where their school bus is and how long it is estimated it will take to get to their stop. In real time. On their cell phones. On frigid corners and in idling cars.

You access the app on your phone, tablet or computer, sign in and there’s your bus, blinking along its route on a map. Unless you missed the bus, in which case — sad panda — the app lets you know it has come and gone.

Do you know what this means? It means no more waiting on hold — in my experience something that can take 45 minutes or more during a big snow or a nasty vortex — to reach a dispatcher who must then radio the bus and figure out how far into the route it and you are.

Betting days are over

No more betting for these lucky parents and kids. Going forward they can decide whether to leave a child at a chilly stop during a slow-grind morning commute or drive them themselves. I mean, a robo-call saying “buses may be up to X minutes late” is nice, truly, but this is much, much better.

This is going to do more to help working families deal with school — the daily logistics and schedule-definer, not the life-molding 13-year experience — than anything in recent memory. Well, except maybe the truly awesome overhauls of the food programs in Minneapolis and St. Paul schools, where the aroma of lunch now makes stomachs grumble.

One year one of my kids was on a bus that traversed the metro looking for homeless kids before it started his route. If I had all of the time I spent on hold with dispatch that year back, I could take a sabbatical and use it to write an annotated history of the big yellow conveyances.

Every day once the school buses in my own life have come and gone I turn my attention to issues and innovations in education and not infrequently I find myself pondering the fact that my parent hat and my reporter hat sometimes are so different you wouldn’t think they fit on the same head.

This is particularly true in the area of educational technology. I hear district brass extoll their investments and have a backlog of thousands of e-mails promoting this or that innovation. And yet almost none do anything to improve the experience of school.

A digital whiteboard does not make class more engaging than a blackboard. E-books do not make lackluster literature better. Behavior-tracking software — not kidding — does not motivate students to do anything other than hate school. A lab full of untouched Apple computers in a school that resists using them to differentiate math instruction for high-fliers is a sin against taxpayers.

Parent Portal

My personal peeve: Parent Portal. Those of you out there with school-aged children are nodding, I know. For the rest of you, this is an online account where parents can supposedly track their students’ activities. Is all the homework really done? Does junior need to be doing the extra credit activities to make up for a mediocre test?

It sounds great, except most of the teachers my kids have had fall behind on updating it long before MEA weekend, resulting in interminable arguments wherein a child insists a piece of homework is done and Parent Portal is bare, resulting in a call or e-mail to the teacher.

True story: Last month one of my sons’ teachers conceded to his class that he had fallen behind in grading papers in mid-November and was so inundated by calls from freaked-out parents that he was inflating everyone’s grade for the term to quell the din.

But I digress when I have another point to make about GPS bus tracking. It’s about time we caught a break from the dictates of transportation. You may not have sat through enough school board meetings to truly understand how much of the school experience is controlled by the bus.

School start and end times are determined not because of a teen’s sleep needs or a typical family’s workday, but by the coordination of the fleet. Forget conspiracy theories about privatization, schools risk closure if their transportation needs are too expensive or conflict with the rest of the system.

In sum, let us all spend a little time hoping against hope that school administrators everywhere, quaking in competitive fear, are scheming to get their own bus apps. 

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 02/26/2015 - 10:38 am.

    Met Council

    Can someone alert Metro Transit to this newfangled high technology? Please?

  2. Submitted by Tim Walker on 02/26/2015 - 11:20 am.

    I downloaded this bus tracking app about two weeks ago after I was notified by SPPS that it was available for St. Paul public schools.

    It’s okay, but it does not truly deliver real-time info.

    But anyway, I hope Beth can edit the article to include the info that SPPS got this about two weeks ago.

  3. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 02/26/2015 - 12:21 pm.

    some real world experience

    Last week I dropped my son at the bus stop on my way to work. The bus never showed up and he walked almost a mile to school on a day that was below zero. He was feeling the effects for the rest of the day and we are lucky nothing worse happened.

    So this experience made me jump on this system this week. First problem: could not log in although the email and web site said that the parent portal user name and password should work for the new mystop site. Wrong. Turns out that if you changed your password way back when that password you are familiar with wouldn’t carry over to the new site. We eventually got that straightened out and they were able to give me the correct password for my account, one I had never heard of.

    Next problem, more of an observation: I’ve watched the bus route progress a couple times. The arrow signifying the bus seems to update position once a minute. As it does so the message at the bottom of the screen says how late or early the bus is running. But it one or more updates more than once. A bus would be sitting at the school and then suddenly it was way across the neighborhood and several stops into the route. So, not exactly reliable although cute and clever.

    On the good side the web site knows my two kids once I am logged in and offers either bus route to show. I can’t just randomly chose buses but I don’t have to know my kids’ bus numbers.

    Postscript: so on Monday, I think, a very cold day I dropped my kid again at the stop and started for work. A couple blocks later I caught the bus driver picking up kids on the wrong corner and getting ready to make a wrong turn. I rolled down my window and talked to him and he said his sheet told him something different than I was saying. Apparently he called in for clarification because he got to my son’s route going the right was. Good news is that the regular driver will be back next week.

    Bottom line: it would be more trust worthy if it always updated when it should and if the updates were more frequent.

  4. Submitted by Robert Owen on 02/26/2015 - 01:22 pm.

    A curious statement

    “One year one of my kids was on a bus that traversed the metro looking for homeless kids before it started his route.”

    You mean just randomly searching for kids (homeless ones) and picking them up to bring to your kid’s school? Would it even have been the correct district for those homeless kids? Is this even ethical or legal?

    Would the bus stay only on busy roads or would it get into neighborhoods? If it was going in to various neighborhoods across the metro area it would seem like your child might be just a tiny bit late for school and perhaps even spring break.

  5. Submitted by John N. Finn on 02/27/2015 - 04:46 am.

    Knock on wood

    So far this year, and for the past two as I recall, I haven’t been more than a minute late for picking up my students in the morning. Except sometimes two minutes for the last stop due to four stop light intersections.

    For getting them home, the parents might make use of the app. There’s a rail crossing that in the afternoon could be blocked by back and forth switching. Unless I’m unable to get around the traffic lineup for a detour, it could be a fifteen to twenty minute wait. No parents have ever called the office about the delay that I’m aware of.

  6. Submitted by John Appelen on 03/03/2015 - 09:37 pm.

    Parent Portal

    Usually we have very good experiences with parent portal.

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