When Chris Burress started East End Stitch N Screen in Duluth’s Lakeside neighborhood, he did it because he saw a need in that neighborhood. Now he’s starting his own driving school in hopes of filling another need for the area.

East End Driving Academy operates out of the East End Stitch N Screen storefront on 45th Avenue East, just five blocks from East High School.

“During the school year, they can just walk down here after school and parents don’t have to worry about getting off work early to drive their kids to driver’s education,” Burress said.

Burress was inspired to start the driving school after the difficulty his family experienced last summer when his girlfriend’s youngest son went through driver’s education.

“He couldn’t get into community ed because it’s so tough to get in there, so the one place he could get into was Northland Driving School,” Burress said. “His dad would have to get off work early to get him over there and we rearranged our schedule to go pick him up. So it was just a big runaround.”

Burress said he wanted to help people in Lakeside by offering a convenient location. East End Driving Academy is the third driving school operating in Duluth. Others include Northland near the Miller Hill Mall and Champion School of Driving in Lincoln Park. There is also a driving school on Ugstad Road in Hermantown called Northern Lights Driver Education.

Teens and parents have the option of enrolling in a private driving school or trying to enroll in Duluth’s Community Education program, which holds classes after school year-round, but space is limited and spots fill up quickly.

“Since I'm so new I don't have the backlog of kids from months and months of classes like other schools do,” Burress said. “So they are coming to me now because I can get them in right away.”

Burress held his first class last week, but started accepting students for behind the wheel lessons since July 5 when he became legally able to do so, a process which took six months.

Burress said it took so long partially because he was busy running a business, but also because he had to be trained by somebody who already has an existing location.

“I wasn’t going to ask Northland or Champion to train me to be their competitor, so I found a place down in the (Twin) Cities,” Burress said.

After being trained Burress said he had to sit through 10 classes of driver’s education, have six two-hour behind-the-wheel training sessions, go through fingerprinting and background checks, pass a 100-question short-answer test and take a driving test in West Duluth as well as a two-hour driving exam in Minneapolis.

“There was also a bunch of paperwork,” he said.

Burress said he will hold weeklong classes once a month, year-round, to allow time for behind-the-wheel lessons. He said he will take up to 26 students per class. He’s hoping to add driving instructors as he grows, so he doesn’t get a backlog.

“I don’t want it to be that people don’t want to come here because it takes so long to get a behind-the-wheel lesson,” he said.

Just one part of the problem

By opening up another driving school in Duluth, Burress is just helping out those who need behind-the-wheel lessons. After getting 50 hours of driving time in, students have to take a driving test with the Department of Public Safety's Driver and Vehicle Services division to get their license. Burress said that at the Duluth exam station, that could involve a month or more of a waiting. When Burress’ girlfriend’s son scheduled his driving test in Duluth, it was about four to six weeks out. He ended up hitting a cone during his parallel-parking test, which is an automatic fail, so he started looking elsewhere to find a slot sooner, Burress said.

“He found one in Moorhead (Minn.) about two weeks later. His dad got off work and while they are driving over there, about halfway there they got a call saying the instructor called in sick and he wouldn't be able to get his exam. So they had to turn around and come back,” Burress said. “Then he found one for two weeks later in Virginia.”

Burress said when one of the supervisors from the Duluth exam station came out to his business to inspect the space, she asked him tell his students not to call and complain, but to call their local representatives to ask for more funding.

“They don't have enough money to hire enough people to keep up with the demand,” Burress said.

There are 110 examiners across the entire state. The Duluth exam station currently has five examiners, who also provide testing services in Grand Marais, Two Harbors and Moose Lake. According to Department of Public Safety public information officer Megan Leonard, after receiving additional funding during the last legislative session DVS hired seven additional examiners, all based in the metro area, who began July 1.

“There is more demand than there are examiners and available appointments,” Leonard said in a statement. “Minimizing wait times is a top priority. Exam supervisors across the state continue to work with customers and schedule road test appointments.”

Leonard said the summer and the beginning of the school year have traditionally been the busiest times for scheduling road tests in Minnesota and this summer is no different.

“This is a time when young people are looking to get their driver's license: before school begins or before it snows,” she said. “The summer is also a time for families to take care of various tasks, such as taking a road test.”

So far this summer, DVS has given 21,132 Class D road tests — 13,030 in June and 8,102 from July 1-18. Since 2015, the number of total road tests given — Class D, motorcycle, moped and commercial driver’s license — has decreased from 158,328 in 2015 to 145,639 in 2018, but the demand is still more than the number current examiners can handle in a timely fashion.

Leonard said appointments can be booked two months in advance using online scheduling, or six months in advance by calling DVS or scheduling at a state exam office. She said people should plan ahead and be flexible on what location they are willing to take their road tests. Leonard also said smaller stations may have more availability than the larger stations.

“Walk-in appointments are only available when someone cancels an appointment that day or doesn’t show up,” Leonard said. “These are available on a first-come-first-served basis, and there is no guarantee that a test will be available.”

To sign up

To schedule a driver’s test visit dps.mn.gov/divisions/dvs. People are encouraged to call the DVS Public Information Center at 651-297-3298 or go online to cancel an appointment if they are unable to keep it.

To sign up for a class or behind-the-wheel lessons at East End Driving Academy, contact Chris Buress at eastenddrivingacademy@gmail.com.