But earlier this year, she was hired as the school system’s first route specialist, a post in which she has found passion and purpose. The job enables her to take a close look at safety concerns and slash fuel costs, tasks she was too overwhelmed to tackle as a secretary, Smith said.
“My title was secretary, but I was doing much more than that,” Smith said. “The problem was, I couldn’t focus my attention entirely on routes and that’s why there was such a need for a route specialist.”
Since switching from secretary to route specialist, Smith has reconfigured routes in Weaver and Saks, street by street and stop by stop. She’ll do the same for each community in the system before her work is done.
Smith also helps more than 100 drivers who operate almost 150 buses on hundreds of routes daily, aiding them in incorporating new streets and new stops in their routes. It’s a process necessitated by the routine movement of families with children in and out of neighborhoods.
While Smith’s title brought with it some new responsibilities, much of the work she does is nothing new for her. She developed a mapping and bus number identification system when she arrived at the department in 2001.
“When I started at the transportation department, I just did not see an order, so I had to develop a system,” Smith said. “I’m sure it all goes back to not having a route specialist.”
By 2003, Smith had developed a detailed list of the drivers’ routes, traced them all on maps and developed a list of each road drivers travel in Calhoun County. Since then, she has used the system to assign new students to bus routes, plan drivers’ routes, and, on rare occasion, help locate a child who took the wrong bus expecting to get home.
Superintendent Joe Dyar said Smith has long been doing the work of a route specialist, though she was also serving as secretary. Her supervisor, Kenneth New, the director of transportation, said during that time Smith worked to improve transportation for the kids, though she received little recognition for her trouble.
“A lot of people want the title before they take the initiative,” New said. “She demonstrated the initiative without the title, without the pay and without praise.”
Her hard work paid off when she was promoted earlier this year, but that wouldn’t have happened without funding from the state, New said. Money made it possible for the system to hire a route specialist, but what convinced administrators that Smith was right for the job was the work she did to revamp the special needs students’ bus routes last year.
Those routes had to be reworked to ensure the children that ride them receive the same amount of classroom time as those who don’t, due to a requirement by the office of civil rights. Smith reworked the routes, adding three more to the system, and the system was cleared by the office of civil rights, New said.
“It just made sense to me to bring someone aboard to look at all our routes that had already demonstrated expertise in the most sensitive area, special needs routing,” New said.
In addition to being the new route specialist, Smith is a wife, mother, grandmother, Sunday school teacher — and a college student. Regretful that she never earned a degree in previous years, Smith became a first-time college student two years ago, now in pursuit of a business degree at Jacksonville state University.
And as a woman of faith, Smith said she saw her promotion as more than a professional advancement — she saw it as an answer to prayer.
Fixed to the cinder-block walls in Smith’s office, amid large laminated maps with color- coded routes, is a small drawing, a little crooked on the wall in front of her desk.
Depicting praying hands and the message “pray Sonya,” the drawing in the same exact spot her niece, Lauren Morgan, placed it seven years ago. It was a surprise gift from the girl, now 12, to her aunt.
Smith never forgot it.
“Because I seek guidance and direction from the Lord … I saw that as a touch from God through a child,” Smith said. “I do feel like it is an answered prayer that God is allowing me to have this job.”
Star staff writer Laura Johnson: 256-235-3544.