Starting kindergarten is an important milestone for children.

But for some youngsters in the South-Western City School District, the new experiences will begin before they set foot in their classroom on the first day of school, which is Aug. 22.

Those are the students who will ride a bus to school.

"(Students are) excited about going to school, but sometimes getting on that bus alone for the first time without your parents can be a little intimidating," said Tim Cox, transportation director for the school district.

For the fourth year, the district is presenting an open house for first-time bus riders. The first session was held Aug. 4 at Central Crossing High School.

A second session will be held from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday, Aug. 11, at Westland High School, 146 Galloway Road in Galloway.

The open house at Westland is primarily designed for students who will attend kindergarten at Alton Hall, Darby Woods, East Franklin, Finland, Harmon, Prairie Lincoln, Prairie Norton, Stiles and West Franklin elementary schools. Students assigned to other schools who could not attend the first session are also invited.

During an open house, students get to explore a school bus, learn about bus safety and take a short ride on a bus.

"We want to get them familiar with the bus, what it's like to ride on a bus and how to do it safely," Cox said.

The open house is as much for parents as it is the children, he said.

"It can be a little anxious for parents to put their child on a school bus for the first time," Cox said. "One of the things we try to do is explain all of the safety precautions and checks that take place before we allow a bus to head out on the road."

Each morning and afternoon and before any field trip, bus drivers give their vehicle a detailed inspection before getting behind the wheel, he said.

During the open house, youngsters learn about the importance of staying in their designated bus stop until their driver signals it is safe to cross over to the bus, Cox said.

"We remind them that cars may not be stopping to the right or to the left of the bus, so they need to wait until it's clear for them," he said.

Students are also advised about basic rules, Cox said.

"As long as you are sitting with your back to the back, your seat to the seat and with your feet on the floor, you'll be all right," he said.

Some students and parents wonder about the lack of seat belts, Cox said.

"School buses used compartmentalized seating," he said.

The seats are spaced close together and covered with thick foam to form a protective bubble in case of an accident, Cox said.

A 2012 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that school buses are about seven times safer for student transportation than cars or light trucks.

South-Western's buses also are equipped with an enhanced GPS unit that allows the transportation department to keep track of where each vehicle is, how fast they are making their rounds and whether a break-down has occurred, Cox said.

The buses also are equipped with multiple cameras and a microphone to provide video for review when a student or parent reports an incident, he said.

"We want everyone, the students and their parents, to know that riding a school bus is very safe," Cox said.

Jennifer Armstrong attended the Aug. 4 open house with her daughter, Abigail Carter, who will attend kindergarten at Bolton Crossing.

"I really appreciate that they have this program for first-time bus riders," she said. "It's nice that the students can learn all about the buses, and it makes parents feel better knowing how much effort goes into making sure the buses are safe before they go out on the road."

Armstrong said she was most pleased to learn that the buses are equipped with multiple cameras and GPS units.

"Kids are not going to be able to get away with the kind of things they could when I was in school," she said. "And I like that they are able to keep track of where all the buses are at any time. They can find the bus quickly if there's a problem."

Amanda Tellier was taking a picture of her daughter, Andromeda, 5, with Buster the Bus.

"I feel so much better knowing about all the safety precautions the district takes with the buses and making sure their drivers are well-trained and safe," she said. "And it's so good for the students to be able to get familiar with the bus and learn the rules of safety so they're good to go on the first day of school."

"We look at the students riding our buses as being our precious cargo," Cox said. "Their safety is paramount."

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