When Spring ISD’s new Director of Transportation, Christina Riojas, began her career in education 25 years ago as a high school health and physical education teacher and girls volleyball and softball coach, she didn’t realize that driving a bus would soon be in her future, or that she’d one day be managing the daily transportation of tens of thousands of Houston-area students.
“I was a teacher and a coach, and as a coach you didn’t have a choice – you had to drive your bus if you wanted to get places,” Riojas said. “My first year in, they said, ‘You have to go get your CDL.’”
A first-year teacher at Aldine High School – her own alma mater – Riojas didn’t know what a CDL, or commercial driver’s license, was at the time, but she found out quickly, and went on to find that she also cherished her experiences as a coach behind the wheel of a district bus, driving her team to meets and away games.
“You get on the bus, and you fall in love with it,” Riojas said.
She continued teaching and coaching – and driving – for several years, going on to serve as head softball coach at Eisenhower High School before completing a master’s degree and becoming a campus administrator and assistant principal. In 2017, after a decade in various campus-level leadership positions, Riojas saw an opening for a district position that caught her eye, as a Transportation Assistant Director for Aldine ISD. She got the job, but that fall brought unexpected challenges.
“I got there the year Hurricane Harvey happened, 2017,” Riojas said. “That was my first year in transportation, and I’d never worked so hard in my life as I did that year.”
Aldine ISD’s M.O. Campbell Center had been set up as a shelter for displaced Houstonians after Harvey hit, and Riojas and others on her team got a front-row seat to the organized response, driving area families to the shelters and helping to support relief efforts in their school communities.
“The harder I worked, the more I loved it. It sounds terrible, but that’s just who I am,” said Riojas, laughing. “So that’s where my real love for transportation began.”
In 2019, Riojas became a Director of Transportation in Aldine ISD, eventually overseeing the district’s northside terminal before accepting the position in Spring ISD this fall.
In taking on the top director role with Spring ISD’s transportation team, Riojas becomes the first Hispanic woman to lead the department in the district’s history. Although she’s no stranger to adapting during challenging times, Riojas admitted that the COVID-19 pandemic had made bus driving and transportation more complicated than at any time in her career so far. She credits the resiliency of drivers, mechanics, dispatchers and other transportation workers, whose commitment to their students runs deep.
“Transportation truly is one of the hardest-working groups of people that I’ve had the pleasure of working with,” Riojas said. “Of course, teachers do hard work in the classroom, as do administrators and custodial staff and maintenance, but in my experience, I really love our group of people in transportation. They’re unique.”
With all the challenges facing transportation workers during the pandemic, employee recruitment and retention – in Houston and elsewhere – has been a challenge. Riojas said it will be a priority for her in her new position, but she also believes that she and her new team will find their way through.
“You have to love what you do, and hang in there,” Riojas said. “I’ve been in education for 25 years, and now it’s evolved into something that we’re all learning, that we’re all figuring out again, because of COVID. It really hit this industry pretty tough.”
Although employees initially come to transportation for a range of reasons – including college students looking to help fund their education, as well as parents who are drawn to bus driving because it fits well with their children’s school schedules – Riojas said she’s known many drivers and other transportation employees over the years who have entered the industry, fallen in love with it, and decided to stay for the long haul once they realized what a difference their work can make in children’s lives.
“As educators in any capacity – including our bus drivers – we spend more time with our kids sometimes than our kids do at home,” Riojas said, “so it’s important that we remember our purpose. We all have so many outside things coming at us, but when you remember your purpose, it centers you, and it brings you back to why you started doing what you’re doing in the first place.”
From her early years as a teacher and coach, Riojas has always loved taking on new challenges, trying new things and seeking new opportunities to grow and evolve in her work as an educator and professional. After two and a half decades spent working in the district where she also grew up, Riojas admitted she felt a little nervous about coming to a new district. Those fears were relieved, she said, by the warm welcome of her new team members, who have embraced her and helped her feel at home in Spring ISD.
“They’ve been so awesome, the drivers and the whole staff, and I’m just so excited to be a part of it,” Riojas said. “It was hard leaving Aldine – because Aldine’s all I know – but when I got here, I knew that although I’d left home, I’d also found my new home. This team has welcomed me with open arms, and I have a duty to give them all I’ve got, and the same for our students in this community.”