January 26, 2022

Pammie Vandermark, PPS Transportation Coordinator: “We Get Up and Go Every Day”

“PAYING IT FORWARD”: Pammie Vandermark, left, transportation coordinator and bus driver for the Princeton Public Schools, and Transportation Supervisor Donna Bradin make sure that Princeton’s students are delivered to school every morning and brought back home safely in the afternoon. (Photo courtesy of Pammie Vandermark)

By Donald Gilpin

Pammie Vandermark found her calling about 30 years ago. She’s a school bus driver and transportation coordinator for the Princeton Public Schools (PPS), and for her and her sisters, “it’s a family affair,” she said. One of her sisters is also a bus driver for the district and the other sister is a school bus assistant who works in the cafeteria at Riverside Elementary School between bus runs.

Vandermark, a Princeton native who now lives in Ewing, described how she got started as a school bus driver. She continues to drive the buses frequently, as needed, though she has progressed from aide to driver to transportation assistant and, since 2015, transportation coordinator.

“My children had started school and I was home all day, and I needed to talk to people, and the job of bus aide fit the hours of my children being in school,” she said. “I got home just in time before my children got home, and I got benefits and health insurance for my family.”

Vandermark started work with the transportation department as an aide on a bus run with special education students. She quickly realized how important her work was to the children and their parents. “My heart went out to the families,” she said. “The first week I cried the whole week. My boss asked, ‘Are you going to make it?’ To see these children with disabilities and to see what the parents had to go through every day broke my heart.”

When her own children got a bit older, she left them after making breakfast and went to work, she said, “But these parents have a two- or three-hour job in the morning before they can even get their kids on the bus. I felt that I was able to help somebody less advantaged than myself. It was a very rewarding job,” she said. “Everybody has an important job, but working as a bus aide made me feel that I was helping someone less fortunate than me. I realized how lucky I was.”

Vandermark went through training and took a written test for the commercial driver’s license (CDL). After two years as a bus aide, she had earned her CDL and started on her own school bus route. 

Her first route was to Mercer County Special Services. Every day she would round up the students in Princeton early in the morning and take them to the special services school on the Mercer County Community College (MCCC) campus. Some students went for only a half day so she would drop off another group at about 11:30 a.m. and pick up the first group and take them home to Princeton before returning to the MCCC Old Trenton Road campus to pick up the last group and bring them back to the district.

Most drivers work about six hours a day or more, but some of the drivers on the regular runs to the middle school and high school drop students off and are done by about 9 a.m., then come back at about 2 p.m., “pre-trip” the buses, gas them up, and go pick up the students they delivered in the morning. Between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., some drivers go home, and some have another job, said Vandermark.

As transportation coordinator and frequent bus driver too, Vandermark has a long day. “I start here before 6 in the morning, and I don’t get out of here until 4 or 4:30,” she said. “We’re so short-handed. We have a couple of sub drivers, but people have been calling out sick left and right, and that means that my supervisor and I have to get on the buses and drive.”

She continued, “If we’re down five or six drivers I have to pull their routes, make copies of the routes, and give those to the substitute drivers. If you’re down a driver you have to think fast to cover the route. You have to pull drivers from other routes and you have to double up. Sometimes you have to call the parents and say, ‘Your child’s bus is coming 10 minutes later. Don’t send them out so early.’ We have to make sure all the buses start in the morning. There’s a lot involved, and a lot of paperwork. Every route has a route description that we keep so that if somebody calls in sick at the last minute I pull the route description from the book. I read it and drive.”

There are 52 routes in the district altogether, including the four elementary schools, middle and high school, special services, and a number of out-of-district special needs schools in Trenton, Somerville, Somerset, and beyond.

“Some of our buses are going 100 miles a day,” said Vandermark. “I’ve done it all. It’s pretty easy for me because I was born and raised in Princeton. If you come to me and say ‘My child never got picked up from 193 South Harrison Street,’ I know where to go.”

Every bus is equipped with a two-way radio, so if a driver gets lost and can’t find a house, Vandermark will give detailed directions over the radio.

One of her most vivid memories involves a lost child several years ago. “A mom called here and said her child never got off the bus,” Vandermark recalled. “She had called the kids next door. She’d called the child’s best friend, but no one could find the student. After they finished their routes all the available bus drivers were called into service. They had a description of the child, what the child was wearing.”

She went on, “We ended up at Princeton Charter School because that’s where the mom was and there’s a playground up the street. But we couldn’t find this child. Every available person was out there looking. Some bus drivers jumped into their cars to continue looking. The mother was crying hysterically. I used to transport the child’s sibling, so I had a good relationship with the parents, and this mom came over to me. She was hysterical. Then she said, ‘Pammie, thank god, we just found her.’ The child had gone home with another student.”

She added, “When you think there’s a lost child, everybody here takes it very personally, and we don’t leave until we know where that child is and that that child is safe.”

Vandermark had many stories about buses and children stranded in bad weather, including floods in 2020 when the transportation department was on the job well into the evening hours, driving students home or calling parents and meeting them when roads were flooded and blocked off.

When there were icy early morning roads two weeks ago, Vandermark had to persuade the PPS business administrator to call a delay. One of her buses was stuck on Snowden Lane. “He was on a sheet of ice and he couldn’t move,” Vandermark said. “Not only do you have the buses out there. You have students standing at bus stops on icy roads. It’s very scary, but we do the best we can.”

PPS Transportation Supervisor Donna Bradin described by Vandermark as “wonder woman” for the way she handles the daily challenges and uncertainties caused by weather, illness, and other unforeseen problems, faced a steep learning curve when she came to PPS six years ago to take the helm at the transportation department.

I knew nothing about Princeton,” Bradin said, “but I gravitated to Pammie, and she has been a tremendous help to me in learning about the district. I used to go out every day and drive around Princeton to learn the streets, and she was right there to help me as I did the routes of the buses. She’s wonderful, and she’s introduced me to many people in Princeton. She has a relationship with a lot of the parents. They’re comfortable with her. She’s a very good bus driver. She does a great job. She’s my right-hand person.”

Vandermark reflected on her decades of transporting Princeton’s students to school. “It’s been the absolute best job,” she said. “I truly love my job and the service I can provide to my hometown. It’s my way of paying it forward. I’ve been here 30 years and I wouldn’t change anything.”

She added, “My heart is here because I was born and raised in Princeton. We take a lot of pride in our town. We take a lot of pride in our families and the safety of our children, and we just get up and go every day.”