BY REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — For the youngest of Niskayuna’s students, this fall isn’t “back-to-school,” as every advertisement and school supply store professes this time of year. It’s just school, a first foray into something new, foreign and maybe a little scary.
In hopes of easing the transition, Niskayuna’s transportation department offers kindergarten students and their families the opportunity to board and ride a school bus before that first bell rings.
Each of Niskayuna’s elementary schools gets its own day for kindergarten bus rides, where families meet in small, cozy groups. On Aug. 25, it was Hillside Elementary School’s turn, and the kids who turned out for the transportation preview were all over the map.
“I’m not scared!” announced a girl in a striped dress, sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the Hillside library carpet. A few feet away, another girl cried and hugged her mother, not wanting to let go of her hand long enough to watch a safety video.
On the wall, storybook characters with big smiles ride a yellow bus across the library’s bulletin board.
Bernie Allinson, a bus driver whose red shirt and white beard give him the comforting appearance of a summertime Santa Claus in khakis, told the children stories to keep their minds off the fact that their parents were on the other side of the library-still in view, but out of reach.
There was the time someone brought breakfast cereal onto the bus and then spilled it, which somehow became an amusing tale for the kids.
“And guess what? I found Cheerios all over my bus!” Allinson exclaimed, winning giggles from the nervous newbies.
He cued up a safety video called “Be cool, follow the rules,” narrated by a kid who called himself Secret Agent Wally, and the kids settled into the carpet to watch.
Across the room, dispatcher and driver trainer Thea Mansfield put nervous parents’ minds at ease.
“If you’re outside five minutes before the bus, you’ll never miss the bus,” Mansfield said, counseling some first-time school parents as well as some veterans who could use a reminder.
One by one, she ticked off a list of common fears: Yes, you can help your child onto the bus on the first day. No, we’ll never leave a kindergarten student at a bus stop without a parent present. Yes, the kids on the bus are nice, but just in case they’re not, yes, we also have cameras on board.
Over and over again, the message Mansfield emphasized was a focus on safety.
“I can replace homework. I can replace balls. I can replace hats. I can’t replace them,” she said solemnly.
Across the room, kids got the same message, but lighter: they talked about a “zone of safety” around the bus, where only bus drivers could pick up items that had been dropped.
While children were carefully reassured that riding a bus would be fun and that their parents and siblings could join them for this first, special trip, parents got similarly soothing messages.
“On the first day, how do the kindergartners know where to go?” asked one mother, undoubtedly picturing her daughter wandering the school halls searching for her classroom.
Not to worry, Mansfield said. Their teachers would meet them.
For the most part, the children seemed significantly less anxious than their moms and dads.
“I’m excited for everything,” soon-to-be kindergartner Carter Klein said gleefully. She couldn’t wait to learn from her teacher, Mrs. Matthews, and to tell her 2-year-old brother, Camp, all about it when she got home.
Her enthusiasm hadn’t prevented the day’s more important messages from sinking in.
“You should always look both ways before you get off or on,” she said.
Another new kindergartner, Zen Watanabe, was as attentive as the superheroes on his T-shirt during the safety presentation.
“If you drop anything on the floor, never pick it up,” he lectured. “Only the bus driver gets to.”
Zen, who moved with his family from California just over a week before taking the school bus test run, said riding the bus would be a breeze.
“I’ve been on a bus before, but not a school bus” he said. He gazed at the yellow vehicle’s mysterious folding doors for a moment before his cheerful attention was diverted.
“I really like this playground,” he told his mom, Nicole McGovern.
And with that, he was off to practice crossing the street with his future classmates at Hillside Elementary.