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In Rural Williston, N.D., Bus Drivers Act as School’s Eyes and Ears

Principal Steven Guglich (right) of Williston, North Dakota’s New School District 8 directs a student to his bus. Photo by Mike Fritz/PBS NewsHour.

Editor’s Note: Our latest report, Educating a Boom, investigates how schools in Williston, N.D. are coping with the rapidly expanding oil boom. Watch it now before it airs on Thursday’s NewsHour broadcast.

Steven Guglich had quite a few issues to deal with on the first day of school.

The principal of two schools in Williston Dictrict 8, in rural, northwestern North Dakota, was still waiting for desks and other furniture for several new classrooms. Some of his newly hired teachers didn’t yet have a permanent place to live. And right up there among his most pressing problems — he was short four bus drivers.

“Monday before school started we had one quit and then the day before school started we had another quit without any notice, so we had to scramble,” Guglich said.

In this district, which covers about 1,500 rural miles beyond the four-mile radius of the town of Williston, bus drivers are more than just the backbone of the transportation program.

“The bus drivers are kind of like our eyes and ears out there,” said Guglich.

With one third more students than last year, the district is growing rapidly. And without enough affordable new homes, or apartments, many students and their families are living in less than ideal conditions.

Often it’s the bus drivers who identify which students on their route are in need of special assistance, because they’re living in campers or trailer parks.

Holly Sagaser, who drives bus number 10, admits life is rough for some of the children she drives to and from school.

Bus driver Holly Sagaser (left) welcomes a student on the bus after the first day of school in Williston, North Dakota. Photo by April Brown/PBS NewsHour.

“They are in RV camps, but they are without a structured home,” Sagaser said.

Sagaser picks up 30 children each morning from 17 stops in a 30-mile route that begins at her own home. After dropping off the children at school, she returns home for a while and then makes the trek again in the afternoon, covering 120 miles each day.

Under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a number of students on her route can be considered homeless.

“If you live in a camper, you are considered to be homeless,” said Principal Guglich. “We have a large population of students who live in campers with their families. We have to deal with that as far as meeting their needs because, you know, we’re expecting them to come to learn.”

“But if they are not getting their needs met in other ways, they are not going to be able to learn,” said Guglich. “With the McKinney-Vento law, they are allowed they get free and reduced lunch. They get some other benefits as well, but you know, it’s a different situation just knowing what these kids are dealing with.”

As Guglich puts it, they are living in North Dakota’s ‘New Frontier.’

American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to help local communities across America find solutions to address the dropout crisis.

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