Taking early childhood learning to the streets | PostIndependent.com

Taking early childhood learning to the streets

Kelley Cox Post Independent

“Wheels on the Bus” has been a staple in preschool classroom song circles for generations, but the childrens’ favorite has taken on new meaning in neighborhoods from Carbondale to Rifle this fall.

On a recent warm, sunny Monday morning in New Castle’s Burning Mountain Park, eight children joined with two teachers and a parent volunteer in singing that same beloved song that’s sung by children all over the country every school day.

The only difference is this particular classroom is carried from place to place by the actual wheels on a bus.

“Gus the Bus” is a partnership between the Garfield School District Re-2 and the Aspen Community Foundation (ACF) to bring preschool to children right in their own neighborhoods.

The classroom on wheels delivers free preschool education to children ages 3-5 from low-income families who do not otherwise have access to preschool programs.

A used, 1999 Bluebird bus has been retrofitted with age-appropriate learning centers that help children develop skills which will become necessary as they enter kindergarten and prepare for their regular school years.

Twice a week since the beginning of the school year, Gus the Bus has been visiting six different District Re-2 neighborhoods, including Apple Tree Park, Burning Mountain Park and Alder Park in New Castle, and the Cottonwood Springs, Davidson/Elder and Joyce/King mobile home parks in Rifle.

During each two-hour stop, two qualified early childhood teachers provide learning opportunities for the children, and offer support for families in the neighborhoods to continue their childrens’ learning at home.

According to ACF, two out of three children in the region from Aspen to Parachute do not have access to licensed preschool programs, especially given reductions in local and state funding for education.

“It’s an opportunity to reach kids who can’t be in preschool, whether it’s cost, lack of transportation, parent work schedules or the fact that most other preschools are filled to capacity,” said Jayne Poss, a former director of the local Raising a Reader program who is now program coordinator for the Aspen Community Foundation.

Likewise, another program that just got up and running in October, called “The Little Bus,” has a similar mission.

It’s one of six different initiatives that have been launched recently as part of the Carbondale-based Manaus Fund’s Valley Settlement Project aimed at empowering area families who are living in poverty.

As with Gus the Bus, the goal of the Little Bus is also to bring the opportunity of preschool learning to children in Glenwood Springs and Carbondale who do not have access to other regular classroom programs.

The Little Bus makes two 90-minute visits per week to Sopris Elementary School in Glenwood Springs, Crystal River Elementary in Carbondale and the former Colorado West building parking lot near the CMC turnoff on Highway 82.

Gus the Bus is an extension of the former “Little Gus” preschool bus program, which had been making the rounds in Re-2 communities for the past three years, Poss explained.

The predecessor program was offered on a drop-in basis in the different neighborhoods, but involved shorter visits and just a single teacher.

“We wanted to expand it so that we could have more impact with a larger classroom and a more formal program,” Poss said.

As of two weeks ago, Gus the Bus had signed up 52 children and was expecting to fill all 72 of the available slots by the middle of November. Families who are on the wait list for the Colorado Preschool program at elementary schools in Re-2 were given the first shot, Poss said.

The program is made available to qualified children from both English- and Spanish-speaking families in an effort to achieve the same diversity as in the school-based program.

Parents are also required to make a six-hour commitment to help out on the bus, and must attend monthly parent meetings aimed at extending the learning into the home.

The idea for Gus the Bus grew out of the ACF’s “Cradle to Career” Partnership between nonprofit groups, businesses, schools, local governments and philanthropists.

The program was launched last spring with the goal of developing a more-coordinated approach to creating opportunities for students in the area from Aspen to Parachute, from the preschool years all the way through to high school graduation.

“Our long-term initiative is focused on increasing the number of our region’s children who are ready for kindergarten and who graduate from high school prepared for college or career,” said Tamara Tormohlen, executive director for ACF.

“One of the challenges to children being ready for school is the region’s inadequate availability of early education programs,” she said. “Gus the Bus brings preschool education to underserved neighborhoods, providing critical opportunities for children to be ready to learn when they start kindergarten.”

ACF has raised approximately two-thirds of the estimated $300,000 needed to support the program for three years, with support coming from the Aspen Skiing Company, the Rifle Community Foundation, the Brenden Mann Foundation, and several individual and business supporters.

“We know that a quality early childhood education is key to increased success in school for many children, and we are deeply appreciative for ACF’s support to help each of our students reach their potential,” said Susan Birdsey, superintendent of Re-2 schools.

Birdsey and Poss both pointed to research indicating that well-designed preschool education programs are proven to help students achieve higher test scores as they progress through school, and help reduce achievement gaps between different groups of students.

Kim Gorsett of Rifle taught in different early childhood settings for 16 years before recently trying a different career for awhile.

That is, until she learned about ACF’s initiative and the Gus the Bus program.

“I had stepped away from education, but when I heard about Gus the Bus I found I really wanted to get back into working with children again,” said Gorsett, who teaches along with former Head Start preschool teacher Elizabeth Russo in the Re-2 program.

They not only teach, but also drive the bus, which has been retrofitted into a state of the art preschool classroom with six learning centers, a central gathering space, heat, air-conditioning and a children’s potty and sink.

“It’s just a great program, and it makes sense to go to the neighborhoods where the children are,” Gorsett said. “These are areas where children might not have the opportunity to go to preschool, and it’s just great to be there for the kids.”

The program uses the same curriculum as in the public school-based preschools. It is designed to support children’s development in cognitive, language, literacy, social-emotional, math, science, technology, cooperative play, physical and motor skills, Poss said.

“It also helps to develop an early appreciation for the arts and music, and diversity awareness,” Poss said. “And, most important, we know these kids will be ready for kindergarten.”

Added Gorsett, “Early childhood education is so important to get kids off to a good start, and to begin to develop social-emotional skills.

“We create the environment for them, and they just naturally learn,” she said.

The Valley Settlement Project’s Little Bus, or El Busesito as it’s known in the Spanish-speaking community, is a smaller version of Gus. But the brightly painted mini bus has many of the same features.

“The majority of our families are Latino, but we do have some Anglo families and the program is bilingual,” explained Amanda Tamburro, education coordinator for the Valley Settlement Project.

The focus of the larger project is to help integrate lower-income immigrant families by providing programs aimed at school achievement, economic stability and community engagement.

The Little Bus now serves 85 families just in Glenwood Springs and Carbondale. Grants are already being written to fund a second bus that can go to additional neighborhoods, Tamburro said.

“We take eight children at a time on the bus for an hour and a half each session,” she said. “The program is play based, with different choices for activities. We also incorporate stories and music.”

Raising a Reader, which provides books in both English and Spanish for children to take home for their parents and older siblings to read to them, is incorporated into both the Little Bus and Gus the Bus.

Another of the Settlement Project’s initiatives is the Mommy and Me program for mothers and their toddler children. A parent mentor program teaches parents how to get involved in their child’s education and in the schools once their children become school age.

“We start with an initial home visit to explain the programs and the parent commitment,” Tamburro said. “Regular follow-up family visits are also part of the initiative. The idea is to continue what the children are learning here in the home.”

The Valley Settlement Project was made possible by a $1.2 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, one of the largest philanthropic foundations in the United States with a focus on proving early childhood education opportunities.

The project’s sponsor, the Manaus Fund, was founded in 2005 by longtime Roaring Fork Valley resident, businessman and philanthropist George Stranahan. The Manaus Fund has funded a variety of projects in the valley, including the Third Street Center in Carbondale, LIFT-UP and the Western Colorado Preschool Cooperative.


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