OCSD “icon” Henrietta Know-It-All continues four-decade mission to enhance bus safety



For nearly four decades, the Oswego City School District has kicked off each school year with a lesson for new students on bus safety – but this is no ordinary classroom or run-of-the-mill teacher.
 
In a neon t-shirt, oversized red glasses, hot pink sneakers and a party hat, the loud, lively and legendary character of Henrietta Know-It-All walks OCSD students entering kindergarten and pre-kindergarten through the basic steps to stay safe while using school transportation.
 
“She’s colorful, she brings a little humor and a loud voice and the students are learning through entertainment,” said Chris Sharkey, Henrietta’s alter-ego, who served the district for 36 years as a bus driver and trainer. “Things change and this program have evolved but it works, and that’s why we keep doing it every year.”
 
On Friday, Henrietta’s summer schedule finished up with a demonstration at Charles E. Riley Elementary School. Over recent weeks, each of the other four elementary school in the district also received a visit.
 
The events are offered by the district to all new students, who are ferried via bus to the elementary schools, where Henrietta and her tutorial are waiting.
 
Students practice entering and exiting the bus carefully while always holding on the hand rail, securing loose items, wearing a seatbelt, and are taught about emergency exits and when (at the direction of the bus driver) and when not (all other times) to open them.
 
There’s a lot of information for young minds to digest, such as staying 15 feet in front of the bus when crossing the street after exiting and waiting until the bus driver gives the proper signal to cross, but Henrietta’s influence on children is a lasting one.
 
“If you want certain behaviors, you have to teach them what you’re looking for and by using Henrietta and doing it in a fun way, kids can learn some of those safety rules before they even start school,” said Riley Principal Dr. Linda Doty. “The first time on the bus is a little bit scary so this is a practice run and when they get on the bus on the first day of school, we want them to have confidence and know the basics of bus safety.”
 
With the return of school just weeks away, the importance of teaching students, parents and community members the safety rules regarding school busses is of the highest priority for the district and events like Friday’s are cementing Henrietta’s status as an Oswego “icon,” according to Doty.
 
“When kids see her, the first thing that pops into their head is to be safe and make sure they’re following the rules and our first and foremost concern is for their safety,” said Doty.
 
Despite the district’s commitment to bus safety education, Sharkey says there’s still work to be done in educating the public about what can be done to avoid a potential disaster once the busses are up and running in September.
 
“We tell students, ‘check before you step’ because of all the people passing school busses on the right-hand side,” said Sharkey. “That’s probably our biggest problem right now.”
 
The New York State Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee estimates 50,000 motor vehicles illegally pass school busses every day.
 
It is illegal to pass a stopped school bus from either the front or the rear when its lights are flashing and drivers must always stop for flashing lights even on divided or multilane highways or school grounds, according to the state, punishable by a fine or possible jail time.
 
Valerie Ellixson and her son, Edwin, were part of Friday’s Henrietta bus safety seminar and both said they took away several important lessons for an easier transition.
 
“I learned about no running in front of the bus and don’t go behind the back of the bus,” said Edwin, who will enter kindergarten at Riley this fall.
 
In addition to the summer events, Henrietta’s work continues throughout the school year, making appearances throughout the district and after all her years of hard work, Sharkey shows no signs of slowing down.
 
“I have a passion for saving children,” she said. “We’ll stop doing Henrietta events when they stop working.”
 
Photo caption
Henrietta Know-It-All, played by longtime Oswego City School District bus driver and trainer Chris Sharkey, shows incoming kindergarten and pre-kindergarten students how to safety cross in front of a school bus during a demonstration on Friday at Charles E. Riley Elementary School. The district holds the events at each of its five elementary schools before the start of the year to allow students and parents to become familiarized with busses and learn the basics of staying safe.