When the wheels on this school bus go round, driver’s songs change lives

When the wheels on Jennifer Ward’s school bus go round each day, Ward and monitor Diana Becker sing with the special needs students all the way to Northern Elementary.

Their simple songs are changing lives, a parent and Fayette County school officials say.

Student favorites include, of course, “The Wheels on the Bus,” Ward said. They sing several songs by the group The Wiggles, Christmas carols during the season, and oldies including “You Are My Sunshine,” “Rock Around the Clock” and the Monkees song “I’m a Believer.”

On Tuesday morning, they threw the “Hokey Pokey” into the mix.

“Those two ladies are fantastic,” said parent Heidi Bigelow. “They are game-changers for us.”

Bigelow said her daughter Sophia, 11, is motivated by music and has become less resistant to getting on and off the bus because of the singing.

Ward said that for three years she was a bus monitor — helping students during the ride — before she became a driver more than a year ago.

Ward said she got permission from her boss to play music for the students on the bus ride because the kids responded well and appeared to be soothed by the sounds.

One day in 2015, when a Bluetooth speaker failed, Ward and Becker resorted to singing, and the students, who had a variety of special needs, liked that even better.

“They didn’t want to hear the radio,” Ward said. “They wanted to sing.”

“We constantly encourage our staff to interact with the students and establish positive relationships,” transportation director Marcus Dobbs said. “We also remind them that they are usually the first school district employee a student sees each day. Their interactions with the student can have a lasting impact upon how that student performs in school. ... They are truly making a difference.”

One student, a refugee from another country who at first spoke no English, now requests “E-I-E-I-O,” Ward said. “We must sing ‘Old McDonald Had a Farm’ every day.”

Bigelow said before her daughter began riding Ward’s bus, travel to and from school was so difficult that she began to question whether the girl needed a wheelchair to get on and off the bus because she would go limp. Now Sophia sometimes dances off the bus.

“It’s had a huge impact on all of us,” Bigelow said.

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: 859-231-3409, @vhspears