The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

In the Spotlight

February 28, 2014

Driving lessons: For Ferndale pupils, learning begins on ride to school

JOHNSTOWN — Students on the school bus driven by Ellen Schatz will never be late for their lessons.

That’s because Schatz turns the bus into an educational tool while driving the children to Ferndale Area Elementary School.

During the winter months, Schatz educates the children  through trivia questions that she selects.

February’s questions included why do comets have a tail, what year did Christopher Columbus discover America and what is a shooting star.

The children searched the Internet and brainstormed with each other to come up with the answers to five questions proposed to them by Schatz.

“They work as a team,” Schatz said. “That puts a smile on my face. I absolutely enjoy it so much.”

Students coming up with the correct answers are rewarded with prizes and lollipops that are provided by Schatz.

This month, students will be celebrating the end of winter on Schatz’s bus.

“We have a pizza and root beer party during the third week of March to say goodbye to winter,” Schatz said.

“I surprise them. I don’t tell them (what day) it is going to be. They love it.”

Schatz said two emergency medical technicians always donate their time to help her with the pizza and root beer party.

During the remaining months of the school year, the children learn teamwork by working together to decorate their bus for the various holidays, such as Halloween and Christmas.

At Christmas, they always get a surprise visit from Santa Claus, also known as Craig Mlaker, Schatz’s brother and president of Mlaker Transportation. Mlaker is the bus provider for Ferndale.

“My brother, Craig, drives my bus at Christmas,” she said. “He tells the children that he needs the bus to pick up his reindeer that are at Johnstown Veterinary Associates getting their rabies shots. Santa tells the children he has to take them home so that he has room for the reindeer.

“I am on the bus giving out gifts that Santa brought for the children.”

The gifts are provided by Schatz.

Schatz is always looking for ways to do something nice for the children.

She recently came up with a story to allow her to do that.

She told the children that her bus is named Emily and that Emily just had a baby. She said Emily was gracious in naming the baby Amanda Charlotte Thomas after Schatz’s three grandchildren – Amanda, Charlotte and Thomas.

The “birth” gave Schatz another occasion to treat the children. She did so by passing out toy school buses to signify Emily and filling the buses with candy.

Schatz believes it is proper to treat the children as if they were her own.

“When the parents give them over to me, they are trusting me to take care of their babies,” she said. “I have to take care of them. I have to keep them safe, warm and happy.”

Schatz’s benevolence toward the children has its rewards.

“In 30 some years, I’ve never had a ripped up seat, no graffiti and no garbage on the floor,” she said.

“And when I ask them to do something, they do it.

“We respect each other.

“I’ve never had a problem with any child.

“I give all the parents and teachers credit because they are doing their part to instill knowledge and values in the students.

“I’ve never seen so many students come out of school with a smile on their faces. It’s been lovely to see children so happy and eager to go to school.”

Schatz said drivers for all school bus companies are doing their best to make sure the children enjoy the trip to school and arrive safely.

Michele Lee Rager, who has three children – Ivan, Gavin and Laken – on Schatz’s bus, said Schatz goes above and beyond the call of duty.

“My children look forward to getting on the bus,” Rager said. “She does not tolerate any bullying, so my children feel safe.

“She always asks the children how their day is going. She can tell if they don’t feel well and will offer them a tissue.

“She makes it a fun ride to and from school.

“I have never seen a bus driver put that much passion and fun into a job.”

Rager said her children enjoy working on the trivia questions at home.

“I like the trivia questions because it keeps them involved with school, and it’s also fun,” she said.

When a holiday is approaching, Schatz will select one grade and inform the parents that the children will be coming home a little late because they are going to decorate the bus.

“It’s really neat to see the bus all decorated in the morning with the children smiling because they want to get on,” Rager said.

Elementary school Principal William Brotz said “Robin,” as Schatz is known, is one of the school’s most experienced and favorite bus drivers.

She knows all of her “children,” their schedules and their families, he said.

“She truly is like another parent for all of her students,” he said. “Robin goes out of her way to provide a safe and enjoyable ride to and from school each day.

“Often Robin has the bus decorated and has trivia games to keep the students occupied on their ride.

“The school is very lucky to have a caring, committed and professional driver to transport our most valuable cargo.”

Frank Sojak is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/FrankNews10.

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