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February 10, 2020

A Bus that Turns into a Preschool Classroom

At no cost to the families, buses “Rosie” and “Sunny” park in their student’s driveways in rural Clay County, Kentucky, to introduce 3- and 4-year-olds to books, letters, and numbers.

Research on the benefits of pre-K shows definitively that children who attend are more prepared for kindergarten and feel the assurance that they’re “good at school” and belong there, kicking off a confident start to the years of academia to come.

While all students benefit, it’s shown to especially give children from asset-limited homes a leg up, closing an early learning gap often associated with economic status.

But for families who live in rural Appalachia, Kentucky, pre-K isn’t always an option.

“Part of it is geographic isolation. Some have no transportation, no buses go there, and they don’t have broadband access. Having the classroom brought to them is powerful,” Dreama Gentry said. She’s executive director of Partners for Education at Berea College in Kentucky.

In 2016, Gentry and Tennant Kirk, early childhood project director at Berea College’s Partners for Education, turned two school buses into pre-K classrooms.

At no cost to the families, buses “Rosie” and “Sunny” park in their student’s driveways in rural Clay County, Kentucky, to introduce 3- and 4-year-olds to books, letters, and numbers.

They’ve served nearly 100 preschoolers and their families.

Poverty rates in Appalachian Kentucky are at or have exceeded 20% for more than 30 years. Just 29% of 4-year-olds attended public preschool in 2018, and only a little more than half of the state’s children were ready for kindergarten, according to Kentucky’s 2018 kindergarten readiness results.

The biggest challenge, said Gentry, was finding the right community partners who have a pulse on the community to connect them to the families who might benefit most from the pre-K buses and to “keep us from being viewed as outsiders because often, we’re seen that way,” she said.

“Once we got that, the rest came into place.”

It’s also the state with the highest number of children living with caregivers other than their parents.

For one child who had been removed from his parents and was living with relatives, being left at a pre-K center triggered the trauma of abandonment. Bringing the class to him and building a foundation of trust first were key.

Recognizing the need for whole-family support involves engaging the adults.

Other than the early childhood educator, the bus is also staffed with a family navigator who partners with caretakers and parents to set goals like completing a GED, quitting smoking, or getting advice on family nutrition.

“Often, parents who are dealing with poverty and little children in these areas don’t have the option to talk to anyone. We know if we can build that resilience and mitigate stress, we can benefit both them and the child. The two-generation approach is what stands out,” Gentry said.

To demystify the formal education setting, once a month, families are invited to a gathering at the local elementary school so the parents and children can overcome isolation and build community.

The buses also became an information hub. Job-training specialists came to spread the word about their workshops, and people from the food bank came to offer services, too.

But the best payoff came from the children.

“One of the most inspirational moments is when the kids graduated from the bus. They had confidence that many of the caregivers didn’t have when they went to school,” Gentry said.

Recently, the Readiness Bus program has been adopted by local community agencies who continue with its original mission.

This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire, and engage the community.

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