After guarding inmates for 20 years, retired correction officer Will Smith was just looking for an easier job. And weekends off.
But Smith, who started driving school buses in 2006 and has been transporting students to and from Sewanhaka Central High School District for a decade, found more than a new job: He found his passion.
“If it was my child on that bus, how would I want my child treated? That’s the mindset I have,” said Smith, 57, a father of five who lives in Inwood. “My goal is to treat everybody fairly and give as much positive influence as I possibly can. I love it.”
His impact has not gone unnoticed: In July, Smith was named School Bus Driver of the Year by the New York Association for Pupil Transportation, chosen out of 55,000 nominees statewide.
“I’m very proud — I could never speak highly enough of Will,” said Chad Schroeter, Smith’s training supervisor. “He was so choked up at the ceremony he couldn’t say the speech he wanted to. It was an emotional experience for him.”
He added, “People think you’re just picking kids up and bringing them to school and home. . . . [But] you’re a leader, you’re a role model, you’re a doctor at times, you’re a parent at times. You carry many, many hats as a school bus driver.”
STAYING OUT OF TROUBLE
Growing up in public housing in Far Rockaway, Smith said, he saw friends fall in with the wrong crowd and go down destructive paths of drug dealing and robbery. Motivated by not wanting to disappoint his family, especially his mother, he refused to follow them.
“I just knew a car ride with friends could change my life forever in the worst way, so I’d say, ‘I’ll see you when you get back,’ ” Smith said. “I didn’t let it affect me.”
Smith said he was involved in the Boy Scouts, the Cadets, which are similar to the Scouts, and karate, and would frequently venture outside of the neighborhood with his mother — to Long Island, Westchester or down to North Carolina to see his grandparents, where he interacted with horses, pigs and chickens and earned money picking cucumbers.
“I got a little taste of the country life,” said Smith, who ultimately completed high school in Virginia to further distance himself from trouble back home.
Smith said he worked part-time in a group home for youth with truancy issues and violent tendencies before launching his career as a guard at Morrison Correctional Institution in North Carolina (now known as Richmond Correctional Institution). There, he said, he was faced with threats and high-risk situations: “The reality is, you could possibly not come home.”
After retiring in 2006, Smith moved back to New York to be closer to his mother. He started working for Plainview-based WE Transport, which serves Sewanhaka district schools in Elmont, Floral Park, Franklin Square and New Hyde Park.
Each morning, he wakes up early and leaves by 5 a.m. to commute to the bus yard in Elmont, where he checks his day’s vehicle top to bottom and ensures it’s in running condition. He leaves the yard at 6:45 a.m. to drive his morning bus route, which is made up of 12 stops. He’s back in the yard by 8:20 a.m.
Then, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Smith said, he’s training drivers — either those completely new to the field, those who need a brush-up on buses they haven’t been in for a while, or drivers who have had incidents on the job and require retraining.
After training, Smith does some paperwork, completes his afternoon route and, unless he’s driving a charter for extracurricular sports — which can last until 9 p.m. — he commutes back home to Inwood. Then he “gets up in the morning and does the same thing all over again.”
Though his days are long, Smith always tries to welcome students aboard his bus with a “Good morning!” or “Good afternoon!” and makes sure to ask them how their days were.
Chigozirim Ifebi, a 2023 graduate of Elmont Memorial High School, rode Smith’s bus.
“It’s easy to take for granted the services of those who contribute to our everyday routines. . . . His daily greetings, punctual arrivals and rare absences majorly contributed to my success throughout the school year,” she said.
Said Thomas Dolan, Sewanhaka’s interim superintendent, “We are fortunate to have a pleasant and compassionate individual like Mr. Smith greeting our students every morning. That sets a wonderful tone.”
TRAINING NEW DRIVERS
As a trainer of new bus drivers, Smith helps them through the rigorous process of obtaining a commercial driver’s license.
“Training has to be intense,” Smith said. “We’re not driving around Coca-Cola. A dropped case of soda can be replaced.”
Becoming a school bus driver has only gotten more difficult over the years, he said. The expectations are high, Smith said, as drivers must “go through a lot of red tape” to land a position. They are required to undergo extensive academic and technical training and stay up-to-date on that training, as well as pass drug and alcohol tests, background checks and annual physicals, he said.
Since he began as a trainer in 2010, Smith said he has taught “at least 1,000, probably more” bus drivers.
“He pretty much has a 100% passing rate for all new applicants that come in,” said Susan Soudant-Dello Ioio, WE Transport’s director of safety and training.
“Will’s got a strong work ethic, he’s a team player and is very knowledgeable in the school bus industry,” she said. “He’s the voice on the ground. You can trust his judgment on training protocols and potential new drivers.”
Steven Rodriguez knows Smith’s dedication firsthand, having been trained by him in 2019.
“Will was and still is very hard on his trainees, but that’s only because he actually cares,” said Rodriguez, who is now a senior training manager at WE Transport. “He’d always say, ‘Come on, man!’ He’s got that Queens attitude: ‘Let’s go man, come on man, you got this.’ He wants everybody to pass, and he understands we sometimes get in our own head.”
Rodriguez said while parallel parking with a bus was daunting at first, Smith taught him techniques that helped him pass the test. A mapping class is crucial for drivers to be able to navigate their routes without electronics; drivers caught with a cellphone while behind the wheel must pay a $2,750 fine for the first offense. Rodriguez said he also learned from Smith how to accommodate special needs children, who require equipment like wheelchairs and car seats, as well as compassion and empathy.
“He wants to be helping others and helping new people. He’s had an impact on every one of us,” said Rodriguez.
Yolanda Howard was a bus attendant for nine months when her driver, Smith, encouraged her to pursue a commercial driver’s license. After helping her pass her test and become a driver, she said, he sought out open trainer positions and put in a good word for her.
“He sees something in you that you don’t see in yourself, and it makes you believe in yourself,” said Howard, now a bus driver and trainer at WE Transport.
More than just technical skills, Howard said, Smith passed down his heartful approach to the job. “You have to look at them as if they’re your own kids,” she said. “You’re the first, second, third person they see in the morning sometimes, and a friendly greeting of ‘Good morning! How’s your day?’ can take someone through their day.”
Katherine Simmons, who trained with Smith in 2022, said he handwrote a driving manual that aligned with how he trained each individual and simplified the complicated, and at times confusing, official commercial driver’s license booklet. This proved especially useful for learning the interior engine compartment of the bus, she said.
“That really helped me toward my test, and I will never forget that,” Simmons said. “He believes in everybody.”
She said she was equally amazed by Smith’s patience when it came to teaching a large number of trainees who were not proficient in English. Through visuals and the help of native language speakers, Smith made training comfortable and accessible for all, she said.
“It’s rewarding when you see them gaining confidence,” Smith said, “and you run into them a few months later and they’re handling the bus with pride.”
For all these reasons, plus working steadily and helping “significantly” during the COVID-19 pandemic, Soudant-Dello Ioio said she nominated Smith for the School Bus Driver of the Year award, making him the first WE Transport driver to be in the running.
He traveled to upstate Saratoga Springs with one of his sons to accept the accolade on July 11.
“Willie demonstrates all the best qualities of a school bus driver in New York State — from ensuring the maximum safety of all his students each day, to the tireless dedication he exhibits throughout his training and mentoring of hundreds of other drivers. Willie leads by example and represents the true pinnacle of his profession,” said the New York Association for Pupil Transportation’s executive director, David Christopher.
Reflecting on the award, Smith said, “It feels great to be acknowledged for what you did. I felt really special. Because you’re not doing it to be recognized, you’re doing it because it’s your job and it’s the right thing to do. I’m very serious about what I do. But I’m sure there are thousands of drivers that do the same thing. If I won, we all won.”
With a laugh, he said that his co-workers around the bus yard have taken to calling him a “celebrity” and he’s had a parent congratulate him while dropping off a student.
Sitting on a bench at Zion Park in Lawrence last month, Smith looked back on his life and career, musing at how far he’s come from his childhood in Far Rockaway. Looking out at a group of children on a playground, he became emotional.
“The kids, they’re innocent,” he said. “I mean, it could be a doctor on that swing right there, it could be an astronaut. We don’t know what these kids are going to turn out to be, so you’ve got to give them all a fair chance. Everybody deserves that.”