Starting kindergarten can be both exciting and a little scary, not only for students, but for their parents, as well.

Starting kindergarten can be both exciting and a little scary, not only for students, but for their parents, as well.

Even before they get to school, many youngsters must face the challenge of riding a school bus for the first time.

"It's about 50/50 about who gets more upset on the first day: the student or a parent who's sending a child to kindergarten for the first time," said Carletta Swackhammer, a bus driver with the South-Western City School District.

"The children are getting on this big yellow bus, which is being driven by a stranger, without their mother or father," she said. "And there's often some separation anxiety for the parents."

To help alleviate their concerns, the district holds programs for first-time bus riders. The first event was held Aug. 6 at Central Crossing High School. Another is scheduled from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday, Aug. 13, at Westland High School, 146 Galloway Road in Galloway.

During the program, students have the opportunity to explore a school bus, learn about safety and take a short ride.

"The purpose is to educate them about riding the bus so they aren't scared with the new experience on the first day of school," said Tim Cox, South-Western's transportation supervisor.

Students learn three basic rules for safely riding a bus, he said.

"You always sit with your back to the back, your seat to the seat and your feet on the floor (or as close as they will reach)," Cox said.

On Aug. 6, bus driver Jim Morgan walked students around a bus to tell them about the safety zone.

"We want to remind them that they should never cross to or from a bus until they get a signal from the driver," he said.

Bus driver Steve Hamilton had the hood up on a bus and talked about the 200 parts drivers inspect before starting each day's route.

"My station is more for the parents, to let them know how well we maintain our vehicles," he said.

Each bus driver goes through 40 hours of training before the school year begins and another 40 hours of professional development during the school year, Cox said.

Every South-Western school bus is equipped with four cameras and a microphone, he said. The video and sound can be reviewed when a student or their parent reports an incident.

This year, each bus has an enhanced GPS unit that allows the transportation department to keep track of where each vehicle is, how fast it is making its rounds and if a breakdown has occurred, Cox said.

"One of the most important messages we're trying to send is that school buses are extremely safe modes of transportation," he said.

A study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that school buses are about seven times as safe for student transportation as cars or light trucks, he said.

Although this month's programs are designed for kindergarten students, the district provides a tutorial on bus safety for every K-4 student early each school year, Cox said.

The lessons are valuable even for students who don't ride a bus to school because all of them will go on field trips, he said.