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SCHOOL BUS OPEN HOUSE PUTS SAFETY FIRST

School bells are still quiet, classroom chalkboards clean and desks empty -- at least for 10 more days. But that doesn't mean there wasn't plenty of learning going on for city schoolchildren Saturday morning.

Several hundred preschool and kindergarten pupils arrived in droves with their parents at the Buffalo Public Schools' first school bus open house in the parking lot of School 17 on Main Street and Delavan Avenue.

The mission: introducing first-time bus riders to those big yellow vehicles and instilling in them important life lessons of school bus safety.

"They're going to be on school buses from prekindergarten sometimes until 12th grade," said Annette C. Acksel, the supervisor of bus aides for the city school district. "We're hoping to get them (educated about bus safety) at the kindergarten and prekindergarten age."

Many youngsters, visibly nervous at their first encounter with a school bus, clung to the hands, arms or legs of parents as they were led across the parking lot to one of the three vehicles.

A package of crayons, a safety coloring book and a smile from the bus driver seemed to help ease the anxiety.

"On the first day of school, the children see this big yellow bus showing up, and they don't know what to do," said Kathy Szwajda, the safety supervisor for school bus company, Laidlaw Transit. "We tell them, 'You ride the bus the same way you do in your mom or dad's car.' "

School and bus officials instructed the children about seat belt use, boarding and exiting the bus, crossing the street in front of the vehicle and proper rider behavior as some of the many important safety lessons.

The event also gave parents the chance to meet bus personnel, ask questions and gain their own level of comfort about sending their children off to school.

"I think it eases a lot of the parents' minds," said Crystal Humphrey of Woodlawn Avenue, who -- with sons, Lienzie, 5, and Da-von, 4 -- has two first-timers she will be packing up and shuffling off to school when doors open Sept. 9.

"I really like this. They should have done it a long time ago," Ms. Humphrey said. "Parents can become comfortable instead of waiting until the very first day."

The success of the inaugural year of the program has organizers already looking ahead to a repeat performance in 1999.

"I see a real interest in it. I think it's a comfort factor for parents and children," Acksel said.

Based on the large number of visitors Saturday, expanding the program to several locations across the city may be part of next year's agenda, organizers said.

"This is good for the kids and the parents," said Tony Magro, a Laidlaw school bus driver. "Safety begins at home -- we're here to help."

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