When it came time to congratulate “Mr. Russ,” Libby Walla could barely contain herself. The Lakes Elementary first grader squealed with joy and trundled her walker up to Russ Clark, her beloved bus driver, and gave him a big hug.
The child’s show of affection may have been an even greater reward for him than the $1,000 he received, after being named the 2019 Education Support Staff Professional of the Year by the Michigan Department of Education.
In the first such honor bestowed, Clark was selected from 255 nominees statewide for his caring and skilled ferrying to and from school of students with cognitive impairments. Besides busing those dozen students, most of them from Lakes, he transports high-schoolers to a job training site twice a week.
A stunned Clark walked between rows of raucously cheering students, low-fiving them as he went, after the award was announced at an assembly by state Deputy Superintendent Kyle Guerrant. He had no idea it was coming and had been idling in his bus outside, waiting for students on a make-believe field trip.
Wiping away a tear as Guerrant sang his praises, Clark was still fighting them afterward as he tried to articulate what the recognition meant to him.
“They’re my friends,” Clark said of the students he drives, gives suckers to on Wednesdays, gifts on their birthdays and get-well cards when they’re sick. “Special-needs kids give back more than they receive. You just make ‘em part of your family.”
Support Staff Play Key Roles
After long bestowing Teacher of the Year awards, the MDE this year inaugurated the award for support staff in partnership with the Michigan Education Association, American Federation of Teachers-Michigan and AFSCME Council 25. It recognizes the key role staff such as bus drivers, custodians and secretaries play in students’ school experience, officials said at the ceremony including Rockford and state board of education members.
“They’re not teachers or superintendents, but they’re vital to making sure kids have a great educational experience,” Guerrant said, noting there are about 3,000 school support staff statewide. “We couldn’t have a better candidate for our inaugural award.”
Paula Herbart, president of the Michigan Education Association, agreed, harking back to her own school days.
“He represents the best of us,” Herbart said of Clark. “I remember my bus drivers. They made me feel safe and secure.”
Clark was nominated by Beth Walla, a teacher at Belmont Elementary and mother to Libby, she of the excited squeal and hug and tears of joy.
“Support staff are the unsung heroes of our district,” Walla said. “Russ just goes above and beyond,” she added, noting he has chaperoned field trips with students and comes to their West Michigan Miracle League baseball games. “He’s a part of their lives.”
Jen Klassen’s second-grade triplets, two of them deaf, testified to that:
Said Aubrey: “He’s very funny and he’s kind.”
Said Brooke: “He plays good music.”
Said Jackson: “I like him because he’s silly.” And does he make them feel safe? Jackson just stuck his thumb up.
A driver for eight years, Clark said he enjoys his work more than he did working at a GM plant for 32 years. Said his wife, Carla, “This is real people, not just punching in and punching out. Every day he comes home and he’s worried about one of them.”
“It’s all about kids,” Clark said. “You get attached to the kids.”