As the sun begins its groggy crawl over the Diablo Range, Janice King is checking signal lights, kicking tires and verifying that the alarm sounds when the emergency doors at the back of her bus are ajar.
"Ow," she mumbles, reacting to the screeching siren that is activated as she opens the vehicle's rear exit.
It is 7 a.m., and King, a school bus driver for the Mountain View Whisman School District, has been up since 5 a.m. She maintains a chipper air as she prepares to head out on her morning special education route.
"We're off to pick up the kiddos!" she exclaims. King seems genuinely enthusiastic about another day transporting children to and from school. Her job might not always be easy, she says, but overall it brings her joy and a sense that she is contributing to her community.
Getting behind the wheel
King began in 1979, after one of her friends told her about an opening for a bus driver in the Cupertino Union School District. She was 20 at the time, working at Tower Records as a music buyer, evaluating the quality and condition of various vinyl jazz LPs and EPs, and purchasing good finds to be resold.
The young King had always wanted to be a teacher, but hadn't been able to dedicate herself to a full time college career.
"My parents were always very supportive, but they couldn't afford to send me," she says. "So, I worked right out of high school, paying for school as I could."
She applied for the job and very soon found herself behind the wheel of a large yellow bus. King worked in the Cupertino district for 10 years before quitting to spend time with her young children. She came back to driving two years later, this time operating vehicles for Peninsula Day Care Center in Palo Alto. For the past 10 years she has been working for the Mountain View Whisman School District.
Currently, King serves as both a driver and dispatcher. In her dual roles she operates a smaller, special education bus and a larger, 84-passenger bus. When she isn't driving, she schedules routes, coordinates drivers and plans transportation for field trips and other special events. King even works over the summer, when Mountain View Whisman buses are used by organizations like the City of Mountain View and the Police Activities League.
As dispatcher, she is the lead driver in the district, keeping track of her fellow drivers' schedules and routes. There are a total of six Mountain View Whisman bus drivers, including King, who reports to Jim McCloskey, maintenance and operations manager for the district.
The drivers operate a variety of buses on the district's six main routes. Two of the buses run on gasoline, two run on compressed natural gas and nine use diesel; they range in size from 16 seats to 84 seats.
After her morning special ed route ends at about 8:45 a.m., King plops down at her desk, which sits in the middle of a small portable trailer on the northeast corner of the Crittenden Middle School campus, home to the district's bus depot.
This is the time she uses to plan for field trips, make schedules and, on occasion, write disciplinary reports. At the beginning of this school year, she spent time here and at the Mountain View Whisman main office with superintendent Craig Goldman, mapping new bus routes to accompany the district's new master bell schedule.
The new schedule and streamlined routes allowed the district to cut a driver position, which has saved money. It was a logistical challenge, King says, and one that people might not consider part of a typical school bus driver's day.
"They picture us as loading kids and unloading kids," King says, imagining what others must think of her job. "But there is so much to take into consideration."
Some routes look great on paper, she says, but in the highly congested after-school hours they can become a nightmare.
For their part, both Goldman and King compliment each other on the roles they played in putting together the new routes.
"She was instrumental in the work we've done to create an efficient transportation system that is well coordinated with our new bell schedule," Goldman says.
"He's a genius," King says. "All the routes have been a major success."
Other drivers use the time in between morning and afternoon routes to perform bus maintenance, run intra-district paperwork to and from the main office and various schools, and sometimes drive for field trips. In this way, all of the drivers, like King, wear multiple hats and stay busy all day.
A teacher, too
When King first signed up to drive for the Cupertino district, she never thought the job would, in many ways, fulfill her desire to teach.
"It was a delightful surprise to realize the impact I could have with kids," King says. "I was so young when I started; the kids just flocked to me. It was wonderful to capture those moments with them. It was heartwarming."
King says that teachable moments abound nearly every day on all of her routes. Some arise out of behavior issues, other times it comes from a child's inquisitiveness. No matter the reason, King relishes the time she spends with her "precious cargo," and considers herself an integral part of the children's education. She is the first school representative the kids see in the morning and the last one they see in the afternoon, and she is conscious of the fact that she has the ability to deeply impact a child's day.
On this morning's special education route, she is painstakingly patient with one of her riders, whose attitude, she says, often shifts on a dime. Making sure that the child's day starts off right can make all the difference for both the child and the child's teachers.
'Great' learning experience
In addition to seizing every teachable moment, in her 30 years behind the wheel King has also learned a thing or two.
"I had the chance to have kids before I had kids," she says from behind the wheel of the big bus on her afternoon route. Her son just turned 26 and her daughter is 24. She believes raising them was easier because of her experience on the bus.
Driving a busload of jumpy children, giddy to be out of school for the day, can be a test of the nerves, but King handles it like a pro. As she calmly instructs some giggling boys to sit properly in their seats, she explains that her job takes someone who is giving, tolerant and doesn't expect anything in return.
Yet, catching sight of King's smiling eyes monitoring the kiddos in the rearview mirror, it is clear that she does get something in return: joy.
At times she wonders why she continues to work a job that makes her wake up so early -- "I've never been a morning person," she confesses. Yet, most days, by the time she clocks out at around 5 p.m., after a day filled with little bouncy smiles, she remembers.
"It's been a great experience," she says. "The longer I do this job, the more comfortable it becomes."