Keys to sweet freedom

Published 5:53 pm Wednesday, June 23, 2004

By By JAMES COLLINS / Niles Daily Star
NILES -- Freedom -- that is what 15-year-old Rita Umuriza is most looking forward to when she receives her driver's license.
The Niles High School sophomore is excited to finally get the opportunity to be behind the wheel of a car through her enrollment in Niles Community Schools' drivers' education program this summer.
Umuriza, who will be turning 16 on July 1, said drivers' education has been an important learning experience thus far.
Niles High School sophomore Danny Rodts, 15, agreed the experience factor has been the most valuable part of the driver's education program.
And this was an opportunity that was almost not offered by Niles Community Schools this year.
With only 90 students registered for the program in early April, Niles superintendent Doug Law was concerned that they may not get the 225 students necessary to reach a functioning budget.
The program ended up achieving its goal and is now serving about 235 students in its two three-week sessions. Niles is one of the few school districts in the area that was able to maintain its program as the state cut all funding for drivers' education this year.
The district's program has been cut down to two sessions instead of the usual three sessions. The first session is currently in its second week.
Each three-week session consists of a morning group, from 7 to 10:45 a.m., and an afternoon group, from 11 a.m. to 2:45 p.m.. Both groups are serving about 60 students each.
An increase in the enrollment cost for the students and a decrease in pay for the instructors made the program possible this year.
Segment 1, the basic instruction which is currently taking place at Niles High School, costs students $250 and segment 2, the supplemental instruction which will take in the fall, cost $50.
The combined price of $300 is still considerably less than the private programs which typically cost about $375 to $400, he said.
Despite the pay cut, Dennis Dryden, director of Niles driver's education, is also pleased the program is back.
He thinks a quality drivers' education program is essential to the development of a thoughtful and responsible driver.
Niles' program is made up of classroom training and driving time.
In the classroom, students receive instruction from their textbooks, training videos, guest speakers and by reviewing accident reports.
The daily driving time alternates between road driving with an instructor and time spent on the range, which is a training ground in the high school parking lot used for basic skills like parking and maneuvering.
Dryden thinks the instruction that the students get behind the wheel is invaluable.
The goal of the program is not only to teach the students the necessary skills to drive a car, but also to teach the students that driving is a responsibility and a privilege.
The instructors try to stress the importance of being defensive drivers "We want them to get their heads into driving," he said. "It is important that they see the big picture." Dryden admits that he does have some concerns about going out on the road with inexperienced drivers, but said that instilling confidence in their abilities is usually a quick fix to the nervous driver.
With continuing budget concerns facing school districts across the state, Dryden hopes drivers' education is a program that will remain a part of the Niles district.