Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 14, 2013

CHINA GROVE — Every weekday, Sonja Hartley is entrusted with a yellow bus full of “precious lives,” as she calls them.
She picks young children up not far from their homes and drives them to Bostian Elementary School, where later, another driver will load the bus to take them safely home again.
“The most challenging part is knowing how much responsibility that is,” Hartley said. “It’s knowing that you have to be dead serious when you’re on the job and make sure that the children are following the rules, so that you can get them to and from school safely.”
Even with that challenge, Hartley said she loves her job.
“I love children,” she said. “And I really have the best children. We teach them to keep out of the aisle and sit on the seat, and they do a great job.”
Mayor Pat McCrory has proclaimed Feb. 11-15 as “School Bus Driver Appreciation Week” in North Carolina.
Schools across Rowan County are taking part in special activities to recognize their bus drivers. They involve giving gifts and treats to the drivers, hosting breakfasts or luncheons and spotlighting different drivers during morning announcements.
Some are extending the celebration throughout the month of February. That includes Bostian Elementary, where students have been writing essays, performing skits and making Valentine’s Day cards for their bus drivers.
Tuesday afternoon, drivers went out to their buses to find pink and red construction paper hearts adorning each yellow vehicle. Fifth-grade students wrote messages like “thank you,” “we love you” and “you are awesome” on each of the hearts.
Other classes created bulletin boards with each bus driver’s name and messages for them.
“It makes me feel great, because it is a responsibility that I know they appreciate,” Hartley said. “I got some of the sweetest letters from the children.”
Hartley, a Rockwell resident, didn’t plan on becoming a school bus driver. She started the job 17 years ago when her daughter started kindergarten.
“I wanted to come into the school system, and at the time, you had to drive a bus,” Hartley said.
After an interim year, she was hired to a permanent position as a teaching assistant and bus driver at Bostian Elementary School in China Grove.
Hartley said she also enjoys working as a teaching assistant in third-grade classrooms at Bostian.
“I work with great teachers,” she said. “They make the job easier, and we work well together.”
On the bus, Hartley said she has make sure to stay alert and aware of what’s around her while she’s driving.
For their own safety, that means the children can’t be overly loud or move from seat to seat. Students learn about bus safety rules in school, she said.
Mike Mobley, assistant principal and bus coordinator for Bostian Elementary, said he thinks Hartley has one of the best-disciplined buses in the system. He said it’s probably because of the good rapport she has with the students.
“She has a type of relationship with the children where she’s able to see things that are unique and humorous that a lot of people might miss,” Mobley said.
Rather than accepting credit for it, Hartley praises the children for their good behavior. She said they sometimes give her trouble, but most of the time they listen and do what they should.
“Bostian is the best school, as far as I’m concerned, to drive a bus for,” Hartley said. “I love it. … I’ll be doing it till I retire.”
Hartley typically drives in the morning, but on Tuesday she took the afternoon shift to substitute for another driver.
As they were dismissed, many of the children rushed over to Bus 308 and greeted her with excitement.
“She’s nice, she works hard and she gets us home safe,” said third-grader Colton Fisher.
Kimberly Barrera, a fifth-grade student, said she likes riding the bus because she can talk to people on the way home. She said it’s good to know that a teaching assistant like Hartley is always nearby.
“She’s really nice,” Barrerra said.. “She takes care of us, and she keeps us safe. … She’s a great bus driver.”
Principal Lisa Sigmon said Barrerra is one of Bostian’s most experienced drivers and said she is amazing at the job.
She said all of Bostian’s drivers are “just incredible,” and all of the bus drivers in the Rowan-Salisbury School System deserve recognition.
“People don’t realize the pressure on the driver with moving everything up at the front, trying to focus on the road… and still monitoring the children, making sure they are all following the rules and are safe,” Sigmon said. “Unless you have been in their shoes, I don’t think you realize the load they carry.”
The bus drivers get to know each student throughout the year, Sigmon said, and children sometimes come to them with their problems and worries.
“They’re the first ones the kids see when they go to school in the morning, and the last ones they see when they get off for the day,” she said. “They make a difference with our kids.”

Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.