An American Symbol Turns 50

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On any given weekday morning, almost half a million yellow school buses haul some 23 million children up steep, winding mountain roads, along the straight, seemingly endless highways of the prairie states, through the clogged streets of the nation's cities. By year's end, they've traveled on virtually every road in the country—more than 3.5 billion miles.

The ubiquitous yellow school bus is one of America's most universal fixtures. This year it turns 50.

In its early years, the school bus was a social unifier. It promoted universal education by transporting children from remote locations to central schools. It played a key role in consolidating more than 110,000 school districts in 1946 to fewer than 16,000 today, virtually eliminating the one-room schoolhouse. And in the 1960's, it became the chief instrument of the nation's courts in the bitter battle to desegregate urban public schools.

Social issues, however, were not on the minds of the educators, state officials, and engineers who gathered in New York City in 1939 to discuss the lack of school-transportation standards. They had been called together by Frank Cyr, a professor of rural education at Columbia University's Teachers College, which hosted the meeting. Enhanced safety was Cyr's main goal for the weeklong conference, but it produced what has become one of the most enduring symbols of American education.

“The yellow school bus is really an American icon,” says Teachers College President P. Michael Timpane. “What it suggests to me is how important the school bus has been in the development of American education policy.”

At a ceremony last spring marking the 50th birthday of the yellow school bus, Cyr, now 89, was honored in the same Teachers College room he and his colleagues had conferred in a half-century earlier. “We had our minds intent on writing good standards,” Cyr says. “Nobody thought we would be celebrating 50 years later.”

Back then, the trip to school was far from routine. In New York City and a number of other places, students rode in buses. But in rural Kansas they traveled in wheat wagons, and in Wyoming they made the trip in motorized covered wagons. The buses and other vehicles in use ranged in color from purple to red, white, and blue.

“States kept changing the transportation standards,” Cyr recalls. “It was expensive, and an administrative problem to keep up with them.”

When Cyr began to argue that states should adopt a set of uniform standards, there were skeptics who said it couldn't be done. “The dean of Columbia's engineering school laughed at me,” Cyr says. “He had tried to standardize the bulbs for turning [signals] on automobiles, and he couldn't get anywhere.” Undaunted by the less sanguine, Cyr sought and received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to organize the meeting, which was attended by officials from transportation companies and 48 state departments of education.

The selection of a standard color was essentially a matter of safety, not aesthetics. The color had to be visible in all sorts of conditions, from morning fog to the fading light of dusk. The group considered dozens, and settled on three shades of yellow, which over the years have come to be known as “National School Bus Yellow.”

To the surprise of some, the conference's recommendations were quickly adopted by every state. They also paved the way for the modern schoolbus industry. “That conference brought all manufacturers to a common design,” notes Paul Glaske, president of the Blue Bird Bus Company of Fort Valley, Ga., the nation's largest school-bus manufacturer. “Without that structure, there never would have been a viable school-bus industry.”

Today's school buses, complete with tinted glass, air conditioning, and tilt steering wheels, are a far cry from those of 1939. But because of Frank Cyr, they are instantly recognizable.

Vol. 01, Issue 01, Pages 72-73

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