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The Pastor Drives a School Bus

The Worlds of Community Leader Kenneth Dukes Often Collide in Good Ways

On Sundays, you’ll find the Rev. Kenneth Dukes preaching from the podium of the rural Holly Grove Baptist Church in Jemison, Ala. He’s been a pastor there for 13 years. Some of the same children worshipping with their families in church will be greeting Dukes early Monday morning at the bus stop.

This pastor has been driving a bus for Shelby County Schools for 28 years. 

“If they listen to you on Sunday, it helps you Monday through Friday,” says Duke, referring to some of the 40-plus students he picks up daily on his route. “I try to get their respect on Sunday, but when they misbehave they know that I can call their mother or father and they will know me from church.”

Dukes has been driving a bus for Shelby County so long that he is now carrying the children of former students and the grandchildren of classmates he graduated with in 1986 from the county’s Montevallo High School. In all this time, one of his most memorable rides did not include students but rather a group of teachers, administrators, and school trustees.

“They were attending a workshop before the start of the school year and the principal asked me to give them a tour of the community,” says Dukes, president of Shelby County Education Support Professionals (SCESP). “Before too long, you could see the tears running down their faces as they saw the impoverished living conditions of some of their students.”

The riders also experienced the reality of driving in an older model school bus during the dense summer heat.

“They said, ‘turn the air conditioner on,’” Dukes recalls. “I said, ‘It is on!’”

Shelby County ranks among the highest-income, fastest-growing counties in the state with some of the finest public schools. Mostly urban, the county does contain its share of flat country roads sprinkled with scenic pastures and robust farms.

Headquartered in Columbiana, some county neighborhoods do struggle economically, according to Dukes. Four years after that bus tour, he says teachers still approach him and express the impact of that experience.

“They tell me how they understand better why some students might not be attentive in class because they are hungry, or why some dress the way they do,” Dukes says. “Like a lot of ESPs, we are able to bridge that gap between teachers and students, teachers and parents.”

In addition to watching out for students, as president of the 450-member SCESP, Dukes is busy building up membership, fighting for better ESP wages and benefits, and staying active with the Alabama Education Association (AEA). He is an AEA board member and chair of the AEA Resolutions Commission.

“ESPs are the first and last school employees that students see every day,” Dukes says. “As bus drivers, we are the Alpha and Omega of their school day.”

Currently, Dukes is concerned about the county’s regular route bus driver’s salary schedule that contains a 20-year gap between year 1 ($14,057) and year 21 ($14,592) wages. The schedule contains five steps starting with zero ($13,689) and topping out at year 27 ($15,663). Between year 21 and 27 is year 24 ($15,128).

“That 20-year gap is unheard of,” Dukes says. “It takes drivers 20 years to get to step 3 (year 21).”

As if being a pastor, school bus driver, and local Association president were not enough, Dukes serves as president of the Shelby County NAACP.

“There is a reason we do what we do,” says Dukes, who has a bachelor’s degree in advanced theology from Birmingham Easonian Baptist Bible College. “Yes, we need to earn our keep to pay bills, but at the end of the day what is most important is how we help others.”

Dukes and his wife live with two of their four children (ranging in age from 26 to 9) in the college town of Montevallo, home of the University of Montevallo.
Being as active as he is, Dukes often finds that his religious, civil rights and education worlds collide from time to time.

When Dukes makes his rounds at local hospitals, he may end up seeing an ill student or NAACP member. As a minister, he often presides at weddings and funerals of former students. A parent from his church once called him in tears to visit her house and talk with her child who got caught shoplifting. The child was a student Dukes knew from school who later became a church deacon.

“It’s never-ending,” he says. “The good, the bad, the all of it.”

As a local NAACP official, residents telephoned him on Super Tuesday saying their civil rights were being abused at the polls.

“When they were turned away for one reason or another or had questions, they called me,” he says. “Sometimes the police call me to show up at a scene to help bring peace … to bridge the gap.”

Growing up in Alabama, Dukes is well versed in the history of the Black community regarding civil rights, social justice, and law enforcement issues.

“I know how some members of the Black community perceive the police,” he says. “The police have a responsibility to help people and I support them in that. We have to work together toward common sense solutions.”

Earlier in his career, Dukes volunteered as an athletic coach for 10 years before being hired by the district for another eight years to assist with the county’s football and basketball programs. It was at a time in the district when bus drivers were allowed to work in other school positions for supplemental pay.

“It’s very rewarding when students remember you,” Dukes says. “You want students and all people to remember you as someone who cared, who listened, who didn’t judge them, who never gave up on them. This can be applied to whatever you do in life: bus driver, pastor, coach.”


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