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COLLIER COUNTY — Collier schools superintendent Kamela Patton stood up from her front row seat on school bus No. 746 and smiled at the students on board.
“Hi guys,” she said as driver Wendy Williams steered the bus toward Gulf Coast High School. “Everybody have a good summer?”
Patton climbed the steps of the bus before dawn on the first day of school Monday, wanting to show support to part of the district that’s often overlooked — the transportation department.
“They actually touch our kids first and last each day,” she said of bus drivers, who take about 21,000 Collier County students to school each day. “Think how important they are.”
Her presence on the bus came as a surprise to transportation employees, who said they’d never seen a superintendent take such an interest. It also came as a surprise to the elementary and high school students on board, most of whom eyed Patton shyly from their seats.
“We thought she was the principal,” said 8-year-old Stephanie Paula.
Patton made stops at each row of the bus, talking to students and asking about their summers, their favorite subjects, their after school activities.
“You are so pretty,” she said to Stephanie and the girls seated near her. “Does everybody tell you that?”
The time Patton spent visiting with students impressed Williams.
“That had to make those kids feel great on their first day of school,” she said. “And to me, that’s what it’s all about.”
A “big bus rider,” Patton said she rode the bus all through her school years. She recalled arriving at the bus stop “just in time” and how getting older meant being able to sit in the back.
The superintendent hadn’t been on a bus since her teaching days years ago. A trip to a hair stylist — who told her about her father’s job working with students and seeing their accomplishments — changed that.
“Finally, I said, ‘Well, what does your dad do?’” Patton recalled. “She said, ‘He drives a bus.’”
Patton found out bus drivers and food service workers didn’t have district email addresses. She had email addresses assigned to them, and started sending messages to all employees on their birthdays.
“I think all those things make a difference,” Patton said.
Riding the bus Monday, she said, was another attempt to recognize district employees who she believes have an important impact on students.
Williams, who has driven the same route for six years and greets each of the students by name, appreciates the effort.
“I think that she really wants to make everybody from food service to administration feel like part of the team,” she said. “To have her be interested in that and want to foster a great sense of community, what more can you ask for?”
Patton has already begun thinking about the first day of school next year: She wants to spend it serving breakfast, showing support to the district’s food service employees.