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Want to Reduce Noise Levels on the School Bus? Get a Little Help from Elephant & Piggie

Maine bus driver Don Sanders helps establish a book reading program that garners national attention.

By the fall of 2014, Maine school bus driver Don Sanders had been on the job for 14 years. In stark contrast, the new academic year ushered in an eager group of kindergartners experiencing their very first ride on a big yellow school bus.

Don Sanders brings tote bags full of books to work for distribution to 16 other drivers.

“Even if they’ve been told by their parents how to behave on a bus, the little ones can get very noisy and restless on the road,” says Sanders, a driver with School Administrative District 75, which serves the towns of Topsham, Bowdoin, Bowdoinham, and Harpswell. “Every year, it’s the same thing.”

While kindergartners and the youngest grade schoolers occupy the first and middle rows of the bus, veteran fifth graders command the rear. Year after year, Sanders observed that the older students were as rambunctious as the tots.

“High levels of noise and activity went from front to rear, every day,” he says. “On a bus, that can be a safety issue.”

That September, Sanders decided to bring a book from home and ask a fifth grader to sit up front with the little ones and read them a story during long stretches of road along the picturesque countryside.

“That was it,” says Sanders, who is at the wheel about 130 miles a day. “The noise level went down and I could focus more on what was outside my windshield rather than reflected in my rear-view mirror. It was bliss.”

Sanders learned that three other drivers from Williams-Cone Elementary School were experiencing the same issue with high noise levels. The drivers got together and decided to approach Principal Randa Rineer about borrowing books from the Williams-Cone school library for bus passengers to enjoy.

After just one month, students were requesting fresh books. In addition, a mentoring aspect developed where older students volunteered to read to students who were still learning the alphabet.

“The thirst that kids had for the books was incredible,” says Sanders, former president of the Merrymeeting Employees Association and Maine Education Association’s 2015 Education Support Professional of the Year.

Public Library to the Rescue

With the need for more books as well as a reliable distribution system between four buses, Sanders approached the children’s librarian at the Topsham Public Library, Mariah Sewall.

City librarian Mariah Sewall and school bus driver Don Sanders collaborated to establish Bus Book Bags. Photo credit: Giovanna Bechard, MEA communications director

 By October, Sanders was working with Sewall on a way to identify, check out, and transport a large number of books from downtown to the buses, then return them on time and in good condition.

“It was one of these projects that provide a way we can reach a lot of kids, maybe some who we wouldn’t normally see at the library,” says Sewall. “I was totally happy.”

They decided to call the project “Bus Book Bags,” which currently involves 17 of the district’s 30 buses and hundreds of students in grades K-12.

“If drivers don’t want to participate, they don’t have to,” says Sanders, who spent 24 years in the navy before retiring in 2000 as a chief petty officer. “If students don’t want to participate, they don’t have to. That’s the way it works.”

Participating bus drivers each have at least two sturdy bags mounted on the bus frame between the first two rows on each side of the aisle. Each bag can carry up to five books. Currently, the book distribution system includes 17 large tote bags for transporting the books from the library to the bus garage and for rotating books among participating vehicles. Sanders picks up and drops off the bags at the library, located about four miles from his residence.

“We created a separate account for the program, which we at the library take responsibility for,” says Sewall. “We don’t charge fines or fees of any sort.”

Sewall is in charge of choosing the titles, which include browsing, photo, and illustrated books, nonfiction titles that involve animal encyclopedias, Legos, Star Wars, and quiz books.

“Kids love graphic novels, random facts, cool interesting things they can get into for 20 minutes,” she says. “They are on a bus and can’t really read a thick book cover to cover. The National Geographic books are manageable enough, for example, to pick up and learn something while on the road.”

Sewall keeps in mind general appeal topics and academic subjects focused on U.S. history, geography and science, and chapter books like Galaxy Zack and Owl Diaries. Series like “Dora the Explorer” and “Elephant And Piggie” are particularly popular this year.

“I try to include something for everyone, for all ages,” says Sewall, who keeps a meticulous list of titles she has sent out to avoid cycling through the same books in the same school year. Currently, Sewall curates more than 150 books at a time, which are checked out every eight weeks and circulated within the program.

Word Spreads, Nationwide

Librarians, teachers, and other educators from states such as Kansas, Minnesota, and Oregon have contacted Sanders and Sewall to learn more about the program.

“There has been a lot of attention from outside the community,” says Sewall, who recently made a presentation about the program at the Maine Library Association’s state conference. “Librarians are calling me from across the U.S. asking: ‘How does it work?’ It’s so easy to explain and implement.”

Library Director Susan Preece, who knows Sanders as a regular patron of the library, embraced the program immediately.

“Don was here one day talking about the new kids and how it was hard to sometimes settle them down,” Preece says. “He explained how he carried books from home to the bus, and then from the school library, but the kids went through them pretty fast. We wanted to help.”

In addition to the bus bags account, library staff soon secured a grant to purchase the durable bags that are screwed to the bus wall. Recently, the Masons organization donated $1,000 to Bus Book Bags. On February 9, Sanders will receive the Sarah Whitten Community Award for his role in helping to establish the program.

“Don is not only serving his students, but also the library,” says Preece. “It’s a great collaborative project between public schools and a public library.”

Education Stakeholder

School libraries and public libraries have always cooperated, Preece adds.

Through the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), educators now have an even greater opportunity to advocate for school librarians as well as partnerships with community stakeholders such as the Topsham Public Library.

“You just have to get the right people involved for programs like Bus Book Bags to succeed,” says Preece. “It takes a little bit of time, money and effort, but the rewards are immense.”

“As the program has expanded, it has worked out beautifully,” she adds.

To learn more ways to empower educators through ESSA, visit

Secrets to a Successful Bus Book Bags Program

How to Begin

School bus driver approaches a local public library director or librarian. Or, librarian approaches a school bus driver or school district administrator. In either case, school transportation director and other administrators must be consulted. State and other laws must be reviewed so the program is in legal compliance with state and local laws.

Fundraising may be necessary to purchase and mount bus book bags and purchase tote bags needed for transporting books from library to bus garage and between buses during the rotation cycle. Mounted bags should hold four to five books while totes should carry about 10 books. Each bus will contain two to four mounted bags, available through transportation companies. The bus bags are often used to hold equipment for handicapped passengers, tools, and other items.

Lead Bus Driver’s Role

Arrange for the installation of permanent bags on bus walls, usually first two rows.

Pick up tote bags at the library and deliver bags to the bus garage, then onto designated buses.

Circulate books in tote bags from Bus A to Bus B to Bus C, etc. at the end of each week or as time allows so students get a fresh batch of books within a reasonable time.

Convince other drivers to participate.

Librarian’s Role

Create a separate account for the program, which the library manages. No fines. No fees. Drivers and students are not held responsible for damaged books or those that go missing (usually by accident, not theft). Since 2014, only two books have gone missing from the Bus Book Bags program.

Librarian should maintain a list of book titles issued per cycle to avoid using the same books.

Librarian checks out books for a designated time period. The Topsham Public Library checks out the books according to the following formula: One week per the number of bags being checked out. On average, one to four books may get damaged per cycle.

It takes hours to return books to the shelf. Volunteers may be needed to help.

When so many books go out at once, it leaves gaps in the library’s collection. Avoid putting every book on one subject into the bags, while striving to include general, high-interest books. Yes, the library’s collection may feel somewhat bare at times, but this short-term problem can lead to new, long-term, library supporters and lifelong readers.


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