22-year-old is Hillsborough's youngest bus driver
TAMPA - Maurice Jones has heard the chuckles and jokes before. "You look younger than we do." "Are you sure you're our bus driver?" "Somebody needs to get that kid out of the driver's seat."Not many 22-year-olds drive a school bus. After all, you have to be 25 just to rent a car. But since last fall, the Middleton High School graduate has been driving a bus for the Hillsborough County school district. It's his part-time job in the morning and afternoon while he finishes up his accounting degree at the University of South Florida, where he takes classes at night. When he gets behind the wheel of Bus No. 3384, he stands out as the youngest of about 1,100 drivers in the school district. What's more, female drivers outnumber male drivers by a ratio of more than 2-to-1. "I really enjoy doing it," Jones said. "It's a learning experience for me." To hear him tell it, driving the bus is the least difficult part of the equation. "It's easy to drive without any students on it," he said with a laugh. "But once you get a load of middle school students on there, it can be a challenge. "You never know what's going to happen on that thing." Like the time when a parent of a middle school student tried to board the bus at a stop. He closed the doors and kept the parent out. "My goal was to protect the students," he said. He didn't have a clue what the parent wanted. "I don't like to guess, either." In the morning, Jones boards his 65-passenger bus at 5:50, when it's still dark, and he doesn't get done until about 9:15. In the afternoon, except on early-release day on Mondays, his shift runs from 1:30 until about 5:15. His route includes stops at Heritage Elementary, Buchanan Middle and Wharton High. High school students are his favorite group, Jones said. "They're very funny. They are good at cracking jokes," he said. "But they also respect me. I must be doing something right." Jones makes sure the students sit in their assigned seats and is not afraid to let them know who's in charge. "I try to build a relationship with them when I can," he said. "You have some who are going to be downright rebellious. Those you just have to handle." Like the Wharton student who splashed green paint in the back of the bus on purpose. Jones checked the video camera on the bus to see who the offender was, and took the bus to transportation headquarters to see how much it would cost to remove the paint. He then wrote up a referral and attached the $114.50 bill for the cleanup. "They know I will write a referral in heartbeat." When he arrives a few minutes early at Wharton one day before dismissal, he uses the time to network with the other drivers. He makes sure to wave to them when they pass on the often-clogged, construction-filled roads of northeastern Hillsborough County. His bus is a 1997 International with more than 167,000 miles. "Sometimes I think it's the oldest one in the fleet," he said. Jones said he asks other drivers what he has to do to get a new bus. They tell him he needs to put in some more time. Kids on the bus say that Jones is always on time. "He's a good driver," said Wharton student Amarilys Villanueva. "He's pretty cool." Jones is doing plenty of things right, according to his bosses. "I was apprehensive of Maurice when I got him," said Gayla Norris, a field supervisor with the district's transportation department and Jones' boss. "But I can't say anything negative about him." "He brings a lot of intangibles," said John Franklin, general manager of the transportation department. "He demonstrates incredible maturity." Franklin drove a school bus in Texas when he was about 25 and in graduate school. He wishes he could find more responsible college students to drive buses in Hillsborough, where beginning drivers earn $10.56 an hour and work a minimum of seven hours a day. "We're always short. It's hard for us to keep up," Norris said. "There is a large turnover. We will gain three and lose two. It's a very challenging job." Driving school buses is turning out to be a family affair for Jones. His sister, who just turned 21, is expected to start driving a bus later this month. His stepmother drives as well. In addition to driving a bus two times a day and taking college classes, Jones also finds time to mentor freshmen students in the College Assistance Migrant Program. He worked with three students previously and is on his fourth student now. He helps them transition into college life and is there for them when they need him. Jones checks to see how their classes are going, figure out whether they need tutoring and is generally a cheerleader as they go through the school year. "I just really like helping people," he said. "Somebody helped me along the way. I have had a lot of mentors in my life. It's important to give back and help people the same way that I was helped."
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