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Robbinsdale’s amazing bus app is a life-changer

This is going to do more to help working families deal with school than anything in recent memory. 

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.

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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.

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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.