Long Island’s Will Smith Named State School Bus Driver of the Year

Will Smith received his award for School Bus Driver of the Year at the New York Association for Pupil Transportation conference in July. Credit: Newsday

By Kevin J. Redding


After guarding inmates for 20 years, retired correction officer Will Smith was just looking for an easier job. And weekends off.

But Smith, who started driving school buses in 2006 and has been transporting students to and from Sewanhaka Central High School District for a decade, found more than a new job: He found his passion.

“If it was my child on that bus, how would I want my child treated? That’s the mindset I have,” said Smith, 57, a father of five who lives in Inwood. “My goal is to treat everybody fairly and give as much positive influence as I possibly can. I love it.”

His impact has not gone unnoticed: In July, Smith was named School Bus Driver of the Year by the New York Association for Pupil Transportation, chosen out of 55,000 nominees statewide.

“I’m very proud — I could never speak highly enough of Will,” said Chad Schroeter, Smith’s training supervisor. “He was so choked up at the ceremony he couldn’t say the speech he wanted to. It was an emotional experience for him.”

He added, “People think you’re just picking kids up and bringing them to school and home. . . . [But] you’re a leader, you’re a role model, you’re a doctor at times, you’re a parent at times. You carry many, many hats as a school bus driver.”

Staying Out of Trouble

Growing up in public housing in Far Rockaway, Smith said, he saw friends fall in with the wrong crowd and go down destructive paths of drug dealing and robbery. Motivated by not wanting to disappoint his family, especially his mother, he refused to follow them.

“I just knew a car ride with friends could change my life forever in the worst way, so I’d say, ‘I’ll see you when you get back,’ ” Smith said. “I didn’t let it affect me.”

Smith said he was involved in the Boy Scouts, the Cadets, which are similar to the Scouts, and karate, and would frequently venture outside of the neighborhood with his mother — to Long Island, Westchester or down to North Carolina to see his grandparents, where he interacted with horses, pigs and chickens and earned money picking cucumbers.

“I got a little taste of the country life,” said Smith, who ultimately completed high school in Virginia to further distance himself from trouble back home.

Smith said he worked part-time in a group home for youth with truancy issues and violent tendencies before launching his career as a guard at Morrison Correctional Institution in North Carolina (now known as Richmond Correctional Institution). There, he said, he was faced with threats and high-risk situations: “The reality is, you could possibly not come home.”

After retiring in 2006, Smith moved back to New York to be closer to his mother. He started working for Plainview-based WE Transport, which serves Sewanhaka district schools in Elmont, Floral Park, Franklin Square and New Hyde Park.

Each morning, he wakes up early and leaves by 5 a.m. to commute to the bus yard in Elmont, where he checks his day’s vehicle top to bottom and ensures it’s in running condition. He leaves the yard at 6:45 a.m. to drive his morning bus route, which is made up of 12 stops. He’s back in the yard by 8:20 a.m.

Then, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Smith said, he’s training drivers — either those completely new to the field, those who need a brush-up on buses they haven’t been in for a while, or drivers who have had incidents on the job and require retraining.

After training, Smith does some paperwork, completes his afternoon route and, unless he’s driving a charter for extracurricular sports — which can last until 9 p.m. — he commutes back home to Inwood. Then he “gets up in the morning and does the same thing all over again.”

Though his days are long, Smith always tries to welcome students aboard his bus with a “Good morning!” or “Good afternoon!” and makes sure to ask them how their days were.

Chigozirim Ifebi, a 2023 graduate of Elmont Memorial High School, rode Smith’s bus.

“It’s easy to take for granted the services of those who contribute to our everyday routines. . . . His daily greetings, punctual arrivals and rare absences majorly contributed to my success throughout the school year,” she said.

Said Thomas Dolan, Sewanhaka’s interim superintendent, “We are fortunate to have a pleasant and compassionate individual like Mr. Smith greeting our students every morning. That sets a wonderful tone.”

Training New Drivers

As a trainer of new bus drivers, Smith helps them through the rigorous process of obtaining a commercial driver’s license.

“Training has to be intense,” Smith said. “We’re not driving around Coca-Cola. A dropped case of soda can be replaced.”

Becoming a school bus driver has only gotten more difficult over the years, he said. The expectations are high, Smith said, as drivers must “go through a lot of red tape” to land a position. They are required to undergo extensive academic and technical training and stay up-to-date on that training, as well as pass drug and alcohol tests, background checks and annual physicals, he said.

Since he began as a trainer in 2010, Smith said he has taught “at least 1,000, probably more” bus drivers. “

He pretty much has a 100% passing rate for all new applicants that come in,” said Susan Soudant-Dello Ioio, WE Transport’s director of safety and training.

“Will’s got a strong work ethic, he’s a team player and is very knowledgeable in the school bus industry,” she said. “He’s the voice on the ground. You can trust his judgment on training protocols and potential new drivers.”

Steven Rodriguez knows Smith’s dedication firsthand, having been trained by him in 2019.

“Will was and still is very hard on his trainees, but that’s only because he actually cares,” said Rodriguez, who is now a senior training manager at WE Transport. “He’d always say, ‘Come on, man!’ He’s got that Queens attitude: ‘Let’s go man, come on man, you got this.’ He wants everybody to pass, and he understands we sometimes get in our own head.”

Rodriguez said while parallel parking with a bus was daunting at first, Smith taught him techniques that helped him pass the test. A mapping class is crucial for drivers to be able to navigate their routes without electronics; drivers caught with a cellphone while behind the wheel must pay a $2,750 fine for the first offense. Rodriguez said he also learned from Smith how to accommodate special needs children, who require equipment like wheelchairs and car seats, as well as compassion and empathy.

“He wants to be helping others and helping new people. He’s had an impact on every one of us,” said Rodriguez.

Yolanda Howard was a bus attendant for nine months when her driver, Smith, encouraged her to pursue a commercial driver’s license. After helping her pass her test and become a driver, she said, he sought out open trainer positions and put in a good word for her.

“He sees something in you that you don’t see in yourself, and it makes you believe in yourself,” said Howard, now a bus driver and trainer at WE Transport.

More than just technical skills, Howard said, Smith passed down his heartful approach to the job. “You have to look at them as if they’re your own kids,” she said. “You’re the first, second, third person they see in the morning sometimes, and a friendly greeting of ‘Good morning! How’s your day?’ can take someone through their day.”

Katherine Simmons, who trained with Smith in 2022, said he handwrote a driving manual that aligned with how he trained each individual and simplified the complicated, and at times confusing, official commercial driver’s license booklet. This proved especially useful for learning the interior engine compartment of the bus, she said.

“That really helped me toward my test, and I will never forget that,” Simmons said. “He believes in everybody.”

She said she was equally amazed by Smith’s patience when it came to teaching a large number of trainees who were not proficient in English. Through visuals and the help of native language speakers, Smith made training comfortable and accessible for all, she said.

“It’s rewarding when you see them gaining confidence,” Smith said, “and you run into them a few months later and they’re handling the bus with pride.”

A ‘Celebrity’

For all these reasons, plus working steadily and helping “significantly” during the COVID-19 pandemic, Soudant-Dello Ioio said she nominated Smith for the School Bus Driver of the Year award, making him the first WE Transport driver to be in the running.

He traveled to upstate Saratoga Springs with one of his sons to accept the accolade on July 11.

“Willie demonstrates all the best qualities of a school bus driver in New York State — from ensuring the maximum safety of all his students each day, to the tireless dedication he exhibits throughout his training and mentoring of hundreds of other drivers. Willie leads by example and represents the true pinnacle of his profession,” said the New York Association for Pupil Transportation’s executive director, David Christopher.

Reflecting on the award, Smith said, “It feels great to be acknowledged for what you did. I felt really special. Because you’re not doing it to be recognized, you’re doing it because it’s your job and it’s the right thing to do. I’m very serious about what I do. But I’m sure there are thousands of drivers that do the same thing. If I won, we all won.”

With a laugh, he said that his co-workers around the bus yard have taken to calling him a “celebrity” and he’s had a parent congratulate him while dropping off a student.

Sitting on a bench at Zion Park in Lawrence last month, Smith looked back on his life and career, musing at how far he’s come from his childhood in Far Rockaway. Looking out at a group of children on a playground, he became emotional.

“The kids, they’re innocent,” he said. “I mean, it could be a doctor on that swing right there, it could be an astronaut. We don’t know what these kids are going to turn out to be, so you’ve got to give them all a fair chance. Everybody deserves that.”

Newsday article

Nuvve’s Largest DC Fast Charger Order To Power New England School Bus Fleet

Beacon Mobility subsidiary NRT Bus will use 25 Nuvve DC Rapid HD Charging Stations for new electric school buses in Lawrence, Mass.

SAN DIEGO, July 13, 2023 /PRNewswire/ — Nuvve Holding Corp., a global leader in vehicle-to-grid technology and deployments, will supply NRT Bus, a member of the Beacon Mobility family of companies, with 25 bi-directional Nuvve DC Rapid HD Charging Stations for Lawrence Public Schools in Lawrence, Mass.

Designed specifically for vehicle-to-grid (V2G) operations, the Nuvve chargers will power a fleet of 25 new electric school buses manufactured by Thomas Built Buses and secured under the largest Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Clean School Bus Grant awarded in Massachusetts last year. New England Transit Sales and strategic partner Beacon Mobility helped NRT Bus secure funding during the first round of EPA grants. The Nuvve K-12 division will support the deployment from site planning at the district’s transportation yard through utility interconnection and commissioning. The charger order was disclosed earlier in the second quarter of 2023, with the units expected to be delivered by December while the buses arrive later in 2024.

“Leaders like Beacon Mobility and other electric school bus operators across the Northeast are embracing V2G to reduce the cost of operation, and we’re honored to help make their switch to cleaner, quieter and healthier mobility as seamless and financially attractive as possible,” said Gregory Poilasne, CEO, Nuvve.

“Nuvve and New England Transit Sales have demonstrated that they’re as committed as we are to Lawrence Public Schools and student health. We’re excited to bring this clean transportation breakthrough which benefits our drivers, students and the wider Lawrence community,” said Beacon Senior Vice President of Fleet & Facilities Bill Griffiths.

The Nuvve DC Rapid HD Charging Stations come preconfigured to work with Nuvve’s GIVe™ platform for intelligently charging and discharging to the grid. The solution enables buses to charge when rates are low and discharge when rates are high and the grid is strained. The V2G services are supported under National Grid’s ConnectedSolutions battery program. DC fast-charging comes standard with the Thomas Built Jouley model with each bus capable of a 138-mile operating range on a single charge.

The Lawrence Public Schools serve 13,000 students from K-12 and NRT Bus transports them via its current fleet of 21 full-size diesel buses and 55 minibuses. The community is vulnerable to poor air quality due to its high population density and location near three interstate highways. The fleet of 25 electric school buses could reduce carbon emissions by an estimated 1.35 million pounds per year which is equal to more than 10,000 trees growing for 10 years or taking 136 gas-powered passenger cars off the road for a year.

Letter to the Editor: Great move on electric school buses

To the editor: Great move on electric school buses

Kudos to Andover, Trombly, and NRT bus for replacing five outgoing diesel-powered school buses with electric ones. As we quickly transition to a clean-energy economy, electric vehicles are our future.



At the end, the article (in the Lawrence Eagle Tribune) notes the cost differential: Electric school buses are more than twice the cost of a diesel-powered bus. But that figure is misleading. It’s important to remember the many benefits of an electric school bus: no greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change; no air-polluting diesel fumes that ruin air quality and threaten health; lower maintenance costs; and usually, lower fuel (charging) costs.


If my child were still riding a school bus, I’d sure want it to be electric.

Debora Hoffman

Massachusetts district modernizes fleet by going electric

LAWRENCE, Mass. – As gas prices remain an ongoing concern, too many districts continue paying a premium to keep fleets moving.

In addition to contending with the cost of fueling school buses with diesel fuel, is the issue of significant emissions.

Looking to the future, officials announced plans Monday to update the district’s fleet on the grounds of Lawrence High School.

Among those on hand were two members of Congress, U.S. Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan (MA-03). Each voted in support of implementing funding for the EPA’s Clean School Bus Program. Between fiscal year 2022 and 2026, the program will allocate $5 billion to replace existing school buses.

While at the podium, Sen. Markey looked back to the history of the combustion engine. Citing the combustion engine’s over 100 years of market dominance, he said, “that reign’s about to come to an end.”

Turning that corner will be achieved by the Lawrence schools receiving grant funding to purchase 25 zero-emissions school buses. The school district received the largest grant funding in the state, nearly $10 million for the buses. Among the benefits will be spending less on diesel fuel to operate the fleet, while cutting community emissions.

As noted by Tim Sheehan, Senior Vice President of Operations, New England for Beacon Mobility, NRT Bus has been working with the Lawrence Public Schools since 1998. The contract has served as one of NRT’s longest standing contracts in the state.

The motivation behind upgrading the fleet was multifaceted, explained Sheehan. “Transitioning to clean energy is a critical puzzle piece, in the state’s overall goal to cut emissions,” Sheehan noted. “We are pleased to be leading the charge, by investing in electric school buses to cleaner, more energy-efficient vehicles.”

Stepping Up to Create a Healthier Environment

Among the various speakers, whether it be Sen. Markey, Rep. Trahan, Sheehan or David Cash, EPA Administrator for Region 1, each talked about the value of moving to electric buses and helping to reduce emissions.

Cash recalled his time as a student, and his less than ideal experience waiting for a bus. “When I was a kid, I would wait on my corner waiting for my school bus. When that bus arrived, mmmm … it was stinky. I had friends who got headaches.”

Fast forward to a time when Cash talked of his time working as a teacher in Amherst, Massachusetts. “I would be there, welcoming kids in the morning, with bus after bus after bus (coming and going),” Cash said. “I would be smelling that sweet, acrid diesel, and I knew there had to be a better way.”

That “better way” became possible with the infrastructure bill recently passed by the House of Representatives, on Nov. 5, 2021. “It opened up the opportunity” for drivers to begin driving electric buses with the allocated funding, Cash noted.

Creating a healthier environment, though, goes well beyond eliminating an acrid smell or avoiding headaches, emphasized Cash. With the first year of funding, “we are prioritizing those in greatest need” including in urban areas, “where we know the asthma rates for kids are higher than normal.”

With the new buses, Sen. Markey noted that the district would be “investing in greener buses, so that we can do more learning, and less fossil fuel burning.”

Following the announcement of how the Lawrence Public Schools will be replacing some of its aging fleet through the Clean School Bus program, Beacon Mobility SVP of Operations, New England, Tim Sheehan (second left) stands with U.S. EPA Chief of Staff Sanjay Seth (far left); Lawrence Public Schools superintendent Cynthia Paris (middle), U.S. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) and Lawrence Mayor Brian De Peña (far right).
Beacon Mobility SVP of Operations, New England, Tim Sheehan talks to the audience during the event announcing that the Lawrence Public Schools are to bring on 10 new electric school buses.

School bus driver recruitment bouncing back after pandemic shortage

SPRINGFIELD, MA (WGGB/WSHM, Aug. 29) – This week marks the first day of school for many across western Massachusetts. We know the pandemic worsened the nationwide school bus driver shortage and last school year, some districts faced bus route delays because of it.
“I kind of looked at it and I was like, ‘Hey, I’ve driven a mom van before, so it’s a bus,” said Holly Bartolon, a school bus driver with Travel Kuz.

Bartolon’s search for a part-time, flexible job resulted in the mom of three climbing into the front seat of a school bus.

“I actually received a flyer from my kid’s school that said, ‘Hey, we need school bus drivers’ and I went, ‘Okay, why not?’” Bartolon explained.

Bartolon is one of 17 new bus drivers at Travel Kuz, which serves schools in Franklin County. One of the owners, Pam Reipold, told Western Mass News the new hires come after COVID-19 amplified an existing issue.

“Recruiting is always something that we do here, even pre-pandemic because there’s been a school driver shortage for a lot longer than the last couple of years,” Reipold added.

Reipold told us many bus drivers are retirees and chose not to return to work amid the pandemic.

“Across the country, there’s still a 10 percent driver shortage, but fortunately for us out here in western Mass., we’re prepared to start the school year with all of our routes covered and drivers for all those routes,” said Peter Delani, director of customer relations with Van Pool Transportation.

At a training event a few weeks ago in Springfield, Western Mass News caught up with Van Pool, which transports students with special needs in 30 local districts. The 100 new drivers are taught technical aspects as well as how to provide for students’ social and emotional needs.

“We have the first and the last opportunity each day as we bring kids to school and bring them home from school to make a difference in their lives,” Delani added.

Back at Travel Kuz, Bartolon has her first passenger: her daughter, Marisol, who will ride her mom’s bus to first grade this year.

“You can bring your toddlers on the bus with you, so you don’t have to pay for daycare. It’s a really great schedule. When there’s a snow day, you never have to worry about what to do with your own kids right because you’re generally home,” Reipold explained.

Students in Franklin County will be heading back to school Tuesday and Wednesday and 140 of Travel Kuz’s buses will be rolling out of the lot, so Travel Kuz is reminding drivers to be on the lookout.

“If you see a yellow bus driving around your neighborhood, you’ve got to assume that it’s going to stop,” Reipold noted.

She asked that parents have patience with bus drivers this week, who like Bartolon, will be learning a new route, and meeting new kids.

“To have people who want to do this and love being with the kids is, personally for me as a mom, is just so important,” Bartolon said.

Starting pay for a bus driver at Travel Kuz is $24 an hour and benefits include healthcare and retirement.


Push to recruit bus drivers in MA before first day of school

LAWRENCE, Mass. — Students in Massachusetts will be heading back to school in a few weeks and transportation companies are making a late push to recruit more bus drivers.

Beacon Mobility, which provides transportation for children in more than 60 school districts across the state, said it is facing a driver shortage of about 10%.

The company opened a storefront in Lawrence on Wednesday for a recruiting event and a number of people stopped by to apply for jobs.

“I’m a very safe driver. I’m punctual, responsible and I love kids,” said applicant Maritza Negron. “That’s all I can say. It’s good to help kids.”

Beacon Mobility said that starting pay for bus drivers is between $25 and $30 an hour.

“We’re hiring drivers — van drivers, bus drivers — and monitors,” said Melanie Castillo, of Beacon Mobility.

The company said that the current shortage is not as severe as it was last year, when Gov. Charlie Baker activated up to 250 members of the Massachusetts National Guard to help communities across the state with school transportation.

“We’re going through the process of identifying where our roots are going to be, and then any areas that we anticipate that we might have some shortages,” said Peter Delani, of Beacon Mobility.

Castillo said Beacon Mobility is looking to hire about 200 new employees.


Help wanted at the wheel

The dad arrived with his young son in a stroller to the new bus driver and recruitment center in the heart of downtown Lawrence Thursday with no inkling the governor would be there within a few minutes to cut a ribbon and celebrate its opening.

Julio Mella, 55, of Lawrence, a former dump-truck driver two years removed from the Dominican Republic and living in Lawrence with his wife and their two children, had heard that 276 Essex St. was a place where he could apply for work.

He drove there looking for a dependable job with benefits that pays enough for him to support his family.

When Gov. Charlie Baker entered the new air-conditioned office with high ceilings, he instinctively stopped along the wall of well-wishers to scooch down and say “Hi” to Mella’s child and shake hands with the dad.

As it turned out, based on all that was said at the grand opening of the Lawrence Recruiting and Training Center, Mella looked to be the kind of person the transportation companies would be glad to bring aboard.

“This is one-stop shopping,” said Edith Yambo, vice president of recruitment for Beacon Mobility, a national transportation company with affiliates in Massachusetts that operate buses and vans transporting students.

The center has at least 200 driver openings for NRT Bus, Van Pool, Salter Transportation and other companies, she said at the podium, as colored balloons for the event floated behind her.

The positions offer drivers flexibility, training and a chance to make positive contributions to young people’s lives, bringing them to and from school, Yambo said, first in English and then Spanish.

People can apply in Spanish or English, receive training in either language and be hired as certified licensed drivers for careers that they can feel good about, she said

The grand opening was bilingual.

Lidia Taveras told the room that for 15 years she has driven school children in Lawrence and Methuen, and raised two children while she was working.

She brought them with her on the bus. Today, they are in their early 20s. Her daughter is studying for a degree in psychology at UMass Lowell and her son is a member of the U.S. Army Reserves.

Taveras now drives special needs students and looks forward to seeing their smiling faces each day.

Gov. Baker piggybacked on Taveras’ thought.

“This is exactly what this is about — to do something special for people in your community,” he said, before issuing a rallying cry for everyone to get to work.

Baker and others didn’t sugarcoat the moment, as employers in many sectors across the state and nation are having a hard time finding employees.

Last fall, due to a dire shortage of school bus drivers, the governor activated more than 200 Massachusetts National Guard members for almost two months in cities including Lawrence.

Secretary of Labor and Workforce Development Rosalin Acosta said she has seen Lawrence come together in moments of crisis, and the city is emerging from a pandemic that inflicted disproportionate hurt from which it is still recovering.

Lawrence has a 6.8% unemployment rate, the highest in the state and New England. The rate for the Latino population, at 7.9%, is almost twice the state rate, she said.

The state lost 700,000 jobs during the pandemic but has gained back all but 75,000, she said.

The governor invited the guest speakers and participants to slip behind the wide, yellow ribbon for a countdown as it was cut with oversized scissors.

The center is open Monday through Friday from 9 to 4 p.m. No appointments are required.

There are currently openings for bus drivers, van drivers, bus monitors, transportation coordinators, charter drivers and fleet mechanics.

Proposed school bus cameras would capture driver violations

BOSTON – A new school bus technology that would make it safer for children to ride the school bus is being considered by legislators.

The legislation would allow video cameras on school buses to capture vehicles who don’t stop for buses with their lights on and ultimately take action against that driver.

“When they’re crossing the road to try to get into the bus and people are going by them and there are little ones that can sometimes dart, so the safety of everybody stopping and waiting for those kids to be secure on the bus,” said Lisa Alterisio of Beacon Mobility.

A car in New Hampshire hit a school bus after not stopping when the lights were flashing, and earlier this year, a child was hospitalized after being struck by a car that didn’t stop for the school bus signal.

The free service uses the cameras to capture anybody who would potentially pass a school bus and then enforcement and law enforcement review the photo. If they spot a violation, then the company sends a fine to the driver.

“Historically, across all of our programs that we support. 98% of folks who receive a fine in the mail never break the law again,” said Executive Vice President of BusPatrol Steve Randazzo.

On both sides of the street, it is a violation to pass a school bus whose lights are flashing,

“Children, who we have a tremendous obligation to protect, if a family sends their kid off to school, you want the kid to come home safely, so this is just common sense safety,” said Rep. Kevin Honan of Brighton.

If amendment 136 is passed, Massachusetts would be joining 20 states in including the technology on school buses.

The Human Element: Making things better for employees, customers

On April 26, School Transportation News rolled out a podcast, featuring Beacon Mobility CEO Judith Crawford.

During the podcast, the discussion revolved around the importance of training and partnerships, marketplace trends, and how to maximize support for both her team and the school districts that Beacon serves.

Listen in on the podcast, to learn how the company seeks to make things better for employees as well as its customers.


Salter driver once again helps Boston Marathon runners to start

HAMILTON (CBS) — For the last 22 years, Linda Heitz has been helping runners get to the starting line of the Boston Marathon.

“We all have a job to do here. And my job is to get you to the start line. Your job is to get to the finish. And I’m wishing you the very best of luck,” said Heitz.

The Hamilton woman says during the nearly hour long trip from Boston to Hopkinton, she gets to know her passengers.

“It’s a long ride. You get a chance to talk to a lot of the people, especially the ones that are right behind you,” said Heitz.

In over two decades of working the marathon, she’s seen a wide range of runners. Some are running it for the first time, while others are coming back year after year.

“They’re wonderful. They’re nervous some of them. Some are raring to go. You hear all different stories. I actually had one person get on one year that said, ‘I remember you from a few years ago,’” said Heitz.

The bus driver for Salter Transportation begins at 5:30 in the morning on race day, operating one of 400 buses for the company.

“It’s a part of Massachusetts history. And we get to be a little piece of it,” said Heitz.

For Linda, that history has included working the year of the marathon bombing, and the uneasy year that followed.

“There was definitely a different feel to everybody that got on board,” said Heitz.

In a few short days, when the seats of her bus are filled with people, she’s looking forward to one thing in particular.

“Normalcy. I want to see everybody and wish everybody luck. I think it’s going to be a good year,” said Heitz.