F.C. Schools Begin Year with New School Bus Technology

FALLS CHURCH FAMILIES WAVE GOODBYE to their students on the first day of school in 2014. The Predictable Ryde app aims to allow parents to know when their child’s bus is arriving. (Photo: Courtesy of John Wesley Brett/FCCPS Photo)
FALLS CHURCH FAMILIES WAVE GOODBYE to their students on the first day of school in 2014. The Predictable Ryde app aims to allow parents to know when their child’s bus is arriving. (Photo: Courtesy of John Wesley Brett/FCCPS Photo)

The Falls Church City Public Schools system has new technology rolling out with its school buses on Tuesday, Sept. 6 when students return to class. The new tech is a software system called Predictable Ryde that allows the school system to track its buses and, through a mobile tracking app, lets parents know where their child’s bus is and when to be at the bus stop. Falls Church schools are the first in the country to have access to this app.

“I want to provide schools that may not have the budget for an advance tracking system to give them a bus tracking and analytics system for themselves to use, so they can improve their bus operations. They know how to do that better than anybody, so this is a tool that provides that to them,” said Matt Vuturo, the president and developer of Predictable Ryde. “It’s a no cost tool for them. And for parents who want to have access to that information, they would be able to subscribe and help pay for that for the schools. That subsidizes it for the schools.”

Predictable Ryde is available on a subscription basis of $4.99/month or $39.99/year, but the company is offering a free month-long trial for parents who sign up by Friday, Sept. 30.
“The idea is that schools and parents have this long tradition of working together to help solve problems and this is just another way to do that,” Vuturo said.

Vuturo said that he came up with the idea for the app when he was driving during a snowstorm in Boise, Idaho, where he currently lives and where Predictable Ryde is based. “We had gotten an early snow that fall and I saw a number of children outside waiting for their bus,” he said. “They were waiting out there and I went and did what I was doing and I came back and they were still waiting. I said ‘Gosh, they’ve been there a long time, they’re probably pretty cold. There must be a better way to do this.’”

At that point, he began talking over the idea with Mike Novotny, Vuturo’s brother-in-law who lives in Falls Church and has students in the school system, who he said was thinking something similar around the same time. “This might something that could be helpful to the schools and to parents and definitely to schoolchildren,” Vuturo said.

Not long after those conversations began, Novotny approached Falls Church City Public Schools superintendent Dr. Toni Jones with the idea for the app. “She felt that it would be a very good tool for our parents and a very nice feature that we could offer to them,” said Nancy Hendrickson, director of transportation for the Falls Church City Public School System. Hendrickson agreed when speaking with the News-Press that the app can be useful to parents.

“It will be a really nice tool for them because it’ll send them a text that says that your bus is five minutes away or whatever,” Hendrickson said. “And, in my opinion, I don’t think people should rely on the app because if something happens and a bus breaks down and I send another bus to pick the students up, it’s not necessarily going to send them an update because it’s tracking the bus that broke down.

“But it’s going to be a great tool, though, on a fairly regular basis, especially for somebody who’s trying to do one last thing or who’s always running a little bit late. [It will alert them that] your bus is five minutes away, whether it sends an alert to the student’s phone, the parent’s or the babysitter’s or whoever, allowing them to know that you’re going to miss the bus or you’re leaving the house now.”

Hendrickson said that what’s more important than the app’s usefulness to older students or parents of older students in the Falls Church school system is its potential for helping students and parents of students at Mt. Daniel School and Jessie Thackrey Preschool.

“I think it’s going to be a really helpful tool to our Mt. Daniel [and Jessie Thackrey] students and parents because those students need to be received off the bus,” Hendrickson said. “Mt. Daniel and Jessie Thackrey students all need to have a parent or adult receive them off the bus and if they’re not there the child goes back. And very often, especially on early release Wednesdays, parents forget….So to have a text that says your child is about to arrive at their bus stop will hopefully try eliminate some of that and the hassle and chaos that creates for some of our students and our families.”

Falls Church City Public Schools was so excited about this app that it was announced over a year ago, at the end of the 2014-2015 school year, long before the app was ready to be rolled out. Novotny said that most of the delay in having the app ready to go was the logistics of implementing the tracking devices onto the buses.

In terms of safety, Novotny said there is a three-fold system in place to try to ensure that the tracking information doesn’t fall into the hands of those who might cause harm to the students. “Security is a big concern and it’s something that we considered from the beginning,” Novotny said. First, all of the application traffic is protected using SSL encryption. Then the registration process is protected through the school system setting a private registration code to provide to the parents, who must have the registration code before they can even register for the app.

Finally, Predictable Ryde is going to provide the school district with a list of everyone who has signed up to review. “If it at any point they think there’s a suspicious account, they can go ahead and suspend that account. They have that power directly at their fingertips.”

The Predictable Ryde desktop and mobile applications is one of three upgrades that the Falls Church City Public School system is rolling out with its buses this year. Earlier this summer the Virginia General Assembly paved the way for Falls Church schools to use their stop arm bus cameras when they made it legal to mail a summons to the owner of a car photographed passing a stopped school bus. The school system began using the stop arm cameras to improve the safety of students who ride the bus in October 2013, but had to suspend the program two years later as a result of an official advisory opinion from the Commonwealth’s Attorney.

“We were very excited to hear that that was put in place….It was a tremendous safety tool that we really missed this past year. We didn’t run it all year long and you can really tell the difference,” Hendrickson said. “When people pass the school bus and they get a ticket in the mail and they get a fine of $250, it’s amazing how it changes the way that they drive. They’re going to stop for that school bus. They usually aren’t going to get a second ticket. So it does make a really big difference.”

Hendrickson said that the stop arm camera program is not a big money maker for the school system or City because the bulk of the funds generated from it go to the vendor that furnishes the stop arm camera technology. The money that goes back to the school, Hendrickson said, is going into potential additional safety measures for the school buses, like putting cameras on the inside of buses, which could assist with resolving issues with student management or issues parents might have when they pick their children up from the bus.

Finally, the school system has upgraded its Transfinder software, which they use help establish, assign and alter bus routes throughout the year. Justin Kirby, the head bus driver for the Falls Church City Public School system, helped implement the Transfinder software for the school system. He said that using the Transfinder software has transformed the bus routing operation from one that was more manual to more of an automated system.

“Once we have the basic framework of our routes put in place, it will place students where they belong and we can see where our numbers are trending higher or lower or if we need to shift a bus from one section of the city to another,” Kirby said. “It definitely makes things more efficient. We were able to eliminate some crossing of paths of buses because we could see it on a map rather than trying to remember where each one went.”

Kirby, who has worked in another school district with this type of software in the past, said that it’s important to have this type of software at the beginning of a school year because it allows the school system to gather information about bus routing and capacity much faster than with manual systems.

“Before you had to wait for someone to send you information before you could know whether things needed to change or you had to wait to see if a bus is going to be overloaded on the first day of school,” he said. “But now you have a pretty good idea of how many students could show up for that particular bus, so it helps eliminate that factor of not knowing do I need an extra bus on standby for this area…Whether it’s a small system like this one or as big as Fairfax County, you need it.”