Traffic safety students with Bree Ammerman, Behind the Wheel (BTW) instructor

When Bellingham Public Schools brought Traffic Safety Education (TSE), previously known as driver’s ed, back into high schools in 2018-19, the goal was equity, one of The Bellingham Promise’s cornerstones. TSE was phased out of many Washington schools in 2002 when the Washington state legislature stopped subsidizing it, which made offering it challenging for schools. But that meant students had to pay for private driving education to get their license, and for many families, the cost was and is beyond reach.

For three years and counting, students have been taking TSE for free at their high school. The one-semester class combines TSE and personal finance in a blended course with practice drives scheduled after school or on weekends. For the TSE portion, students complete six hours of supervised drives with a certificated instructor, as well as a classroom portion on driver safety. Half their time is spent in a personal finance class taught by a different teacher that covers topics related to car ownership as well as other personal finance topics. Each high school has its own structure.

The community benefits from school-based TSE, too. Research shows that teens who take a driver safety course are safer on the road. That’s good for everyone.

Older students are prioritized for scheduling if they haven’t taken TSE, but all students aged 15 and up with a driver’s permit can sign up. If no spot is available, they’re put on a waiting list. (Learn more about the Washington state requirements and permit process here.)

So, how’s it been going? The program has exited more than 2,000 students from the semester-long class since it started. “It’s a very popular program,” says Stu Soderquist, TSE instructor at Bellingham High School and coordinator of the program. “The kids are super motivated to be here. I have better attendance, better compliance than most classes, and the students really step up.”

Derek Hahn, who teaches TSE at Sehome High School, says it’s one of the best classes at the school. “It means students and families don’t have to worry about the financial burden of taking traffic safety,” he says. “Driving is a skill that any child should get for free.”

One of the more personalized benefits of the in-school program is that if students need to repeat a drive or class learning module, instructors spend time with them until they’ve achieved proficiency—for no extra cost to the family. That might mean extra drives because not all students have access to a car or have a parent who can accompany them on practice drives, Hahn says. Students appreciate the extra practice, says Bree Ammerman, Behind the Wheel (BTW) instructor. “We strive not only to teach the kids how to drive, but how to be safe, confident drivers on the road,” she says.

The TSE portion includes bringing in an insurance agent to explain the concept of insurance and why it’s required, as well as a police officer to talk about legal responsibilities and traffic laws. “Kids always have a lot of questions,” Soderquist says. The curriculum also includes a unit on impaired and distracted driving.

When students are in the personal finance portion of the class, they learn about topics related to purchasing and owning a car, including how to qualify for a loan, how to pay it off, and how compound interest works. “This class is being taught from a consumer behavioral economic approach, and students are getting good bang for the buck through practical information,” says Chad Squires, who teaches the personal finance module at Squalicum High School. At Sehome High School, business education teacher Jeff Wood introduces as much personal finance material as fits into his class. A unit on credit teaches students about the importance of credit and credit scores as related to qualifying for a loan. Wood also has students create budgets, distinguish between needs and wants, and learn about different categories of bills. “We also talk about investing, saving your money, and compound interest,” he says. These are all skills students take with them once they become independent and live on their own.

Sehome freshman Alivia Hernandez appreciates the real-world money skills she’s learning. “It’s preparing us for success after we graduate so we know how to make good decisions financially,” she says.

Soderquist loves seeing the student motivation and watching their driving performance improve over time. “I have a passion for this class and for kids to be safe drivers,” he says. Hahn feels the same.

Due to the program’s success, it frequently needs additional trained Behind the Wheel (BTW) instructors. If you are interested in learning more about the in-house BTW training, email Stu Soderquest (Stuart.Soderquist@bellinghamschools.org), traffic safety coordinator.

Traffic Safety Education is a 2018 addition to Project Free Education in Bellingham Public Schools. For a complete review of how the district works to reduce barriers and financial burdens on families, visit the Project Free Education webpage.

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