A New Jersey school bus driver is going the extra mile for the kids by creating a reading program for students struggling to read.
The 55-year-old bus driver says he started tutoring students to kill time between bus routes, but his benevolence soon took a life of its own.
“To see their eyes light up, ‘there’s Mr. Herman, there’s Mr. Herman! It’s just a high point of my day,” Herman Cruse said.
Cruse drives for Middle Township Public Schools in Cape May Court House, New Jersey. The small coastal town of about 5,500 residents is about 35 miles south of Atlantic City. The town is primarily white at 88 percent, and only 5 percent of the population identifies as Black, according to Census data.
Cruse says he commutes to and from the school district from his home in Egg Harbor City, about 40 minutes away. Although he’s been driving school buses since 1990, he has been driving for Middle Township since 2013. He says he often found himself looking for things to do between his morning and afternoon bus routes.
“Sometimes I go to the library. Sometimes I go to the gym. Sometimes I just go shopping and run errands, and sometimes I lay in my car and take a nap,” Cruse said.
In February 2022, Cruse says he overheard a conversation between one of his bus riders and his kindergarten teacher. The teacher questioned the student about his reading assignment, and the student tearfully expressed he couldn’t get his parents to help him read. Cruse then posed a question to the teacher that would change the trajectory for him and dozens of students.
“‘What if I come volunteer and help read with this student,’” Cruse said to the teacher. “‘I would like to come in and read with the student,’ and she was blown away,” he added.
Since his proposition to tutor students, Cruse has spent time between his bus schedule helping a diverse mix of students with their reading.
“He doesn’t brag. He does it because he genuinely wants to,” Alexandrea Byron told Middle Township. Byron is a kindergarten teacher whose students were the first to get help from Cruse. “More kids started to see Mr. Herman and going well, ‘Can I read with him? Can I go talk to him,’” Byron told WPVI.
“From February, we started with one student, and in June, it exploded to multiple students in five classrooms,” Cruse said of his reading program’s growth.
“The school guidance counselor got wind of what I was doing; then she involved first and second graders,” he added.
Middle Township Elementary #1, the site for Cruse’s reading program, touts on its website, “diversity is our strength.” The school hosts pre-K to second grade and has approximately 700 students with 62 percent white, 22 percent Black and 14 percent Hispanic.
“It’s diverse. You have African-Americans, Caucasians, Indians,” Cruse said of the students with whom he works.
By the end of the 2021 to 2022 school year, according to Cruse, several dozen students were participating in his reading program. He says most of the students’ reading difficulties can be attributed to the students becoming accustomed to reading at a young age.
“Some of the challenges is the actual reading curriculum, so they’re learning to read. In addition to learning to read, get the sentences and get the books right,” he and the students talk “and relate to each other.”
Not to be lost amid the growing adoration of his volunteerism, Cruse is a bus driver first. He finds navigating traffic the most difficult part of driving a school bus. He says caring for his kids is always paramount.
“He always manages to maintain the students’ behavior with great communication skills. He gets to know his students very well. He takes the time to listen to them and get to know them,” said Dawn DeVico, transportation coordinator for the Middle Township Board of Education.
Cruse says he has always wanted to be a bus driver from an early age. He recalled family road trips from New Jersey to Virginia and being fascinated with the buses the family car would pass along the highway.
“During the highway trips, I was always enamored by Greyhound and Peter Pan buses,” Cruse said.
While away from the students and his beloved bus, Cruse has a family of five children of his own and one grandchild. He says his wife, who works as a state investigator, and his children are all proud of the difference he is making with his reading program.
“The story of Mr. Herman’s kids has grown wings and flew away and my kids are proud of dad,” said Cruse.
Cruse’s story has gone viral and has been featured on “Good Morning America” and in The Washington Post and local media outlets. He also was honored on Dec. 19 with the Middle Matters Award for his willingness to give back. The award from Middle Township, according to the New Jersey city, recognizes residents “for their wide variety of endeavors toward building a better Middle Township.”
“Mr. Herman has done a phenomenal job beginning this program to aid students in learning how to read and improve their literacy skills,” said Katie Campbell, Cruse’s colleague and an employee of the Middle Township School District.
“The simple act of giving his time to read with and listen to students makes a huge difference in the lives of these children. We commend Mr. Herman for spreading compassion and we are proud to present him with a Middle Matters Award,” said Tom Donohue, Middle Township mayor.
Amid his growing notoriety for his willingness to help students, Cruse hopes his story serves as an inspiration for others. He says it is important for students to have positive Black role models and he is honored to be one himself.
“I just encourage our brothers, if it’s in your heart to help someone besides your own, please do so,” said Cruse.