Miami-Dade school bus drivers rev up to prepare for the first day of school

Gwendolyn Tillman arms herself with a broom and gives each tire a whack.

She wants to hear a solid thump so she knows the pressure is right — something “very, very important” when it comes to driving a school bus.

When the 2014-2015 school year starts in Miami-Dade County on Monday, Tillman will climb behind the wheel of a bus for her 26th year.

She joins almost 2,000 drivers who work for the public school system. Together, they will drive eight million miles in the next academic year, from Florida City to Aventura.

With 1,250 buses and 964 routes, the school district runs a bigger fleet and more routes than Miami-Dade Transit.

On Thursday, they all practiced their routes, caught up with each other and compared driving gloves.

“Our drivers are the heart and soul of the department,” said Orlando Alonso, administrative director for the department of transportation — and a 35-year district veteran.

Tillman considers herself a professional, a teacher and a mother to the students who board her bus. She lends an ear to kids who sit behind her and ask to talk about their lives in foster homes or problems at school.

“And I would say, ‘Sure. You can talk to me about anything,’” Tillman said. “Kids, you cry with, you laugh with. You just have an open heart for those kids.”

Greg Allen, a driver for 31 years, remembers one student particularly well. His name was Patrick.

“He didn’t want to ride with nobody else,” Allen said. “I don’t know what I really did, but I just treat everybody the same. The mom came and said ‘Hey what did you do for my son? Because he doesn’t talk about anyone like this.’ She used to bring me hot chocolate when it was cold. She would bring me McDonalds, and I had to get on her. I said: ‘Look: I have to watch my weight.’”

The job can be physically grueling. Work starts at 5 a.m. Allen, an Army veteran, said his alarm goes off at 3 a.m.

“The same time I used to get up in the military,” he said.

When kids need transportation to field trips and sports games, it can make for a long day. Sleep deprivation catches up.

“You really have to push yourself, especially in the middle of the school year because the body really starts to wind down,” Tillman said.

Allen said many old-timers have shoulder injuries from physically opening and closing the bus doors at every stop. Now, the doors swing open with the touch of a button.

But the biggest change through the years? Air conditioning. With an average temperature higher than 90 degrees in the South Florida summertime, drivers would lug coolers of water and blast fans to try to keep cool and hydrated.

“I didn’t think I was going to make it as a bus driver without air conditioning,” Tillman said.

Said Allen: “It was hot in there. You’d have to let all the windows down. And then the kids wouldn’t let them up, so you had to let them up.

At the end of the day, the buses all pull into their depots and the drivers get to work cleaning. Allen chuckled but declined to say what kinds of things he finds tossed on the floor of his buses.

“You’d be amazed,” he said.

Follow @Cveiga on Twitter.