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MANCHESTER, Ky.— Inside Rosie Bus, a colorful minibus that crisscrosses the countryside here in eastern Kentucky, Paisley Barrett, 4, surveyed a tray filled with clear round containers. She quickly selected one toward the back, which had a cartoonish drawing of a pair of socks taped to its lid, and started going through each of the small plastic items inside.
“This here’s a fox,” she declared, brushing her finger over its curled tail. Tennant Kirk, the early childhood project director at Berea College’s Partners for Education, nodded encouragingly.
Paisley went through a few more items — blocks, locks, rocks, a box — then she came to an item that gave her pause. “I ain’t got no idea,” she said.
Kirk turned to Paisley’s mother, Ashley Barrett. “I think a lot of children these days have never seen one of these old grandfather clocks,” she said, before turning her attention back to Paisley, explaining that “clocks”—like “locks,” “rocks” and “fox”—rhymes with “socks.” Rhyming is an important pre-reading skill, and Rosie’s educators take care that children learn the concept.
Paisley nodded, then reached for the next container. “I just love her enthusiasm,” Kirk told Barrett. “She is so ready for kindergarten.”
If it weren’t for the Rosie Bus (and Rosie’s counterpart, the Sunny Bus), many children like Paisley wouldn’t have the opportunity to receive any formal preparation for kindergarten. In small towns like Manchester, nestled in the lush, rolling foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, families are faced with a paucity of preschool options. Some families who meet the income requirements qualify for Head Start, a federally-funded preschool program for children living in poverty, but letting children attend means sending them on a long bus ride that could last over an hour, something many parents are unwilling to do. Although some children qualify for local public preschool options, figuring out the requirements to get in is often difficult for parents to navigate, Kirk said.
However, the most significant obstacle to kindergarten-readiness here, she said, may be the common belief that young children don’t belong in any formal program. Kirk said she is often asked, “Why should a 4-year-old go to school?”
So, Kirk explained, when she and Dreama Gentry, Partners for Education’s Executive Director, developed the idea for the buses, they realized they had to confront not only the logistical challenges of reaching young children living in poverty and isolation, but also families’ suspicion of pre-kindergarten programs in general.
For families like the Barretts, the benefits of the program have been huge. Barrett said that after Paisley participated in nearly two years of Rosie Bus lessons, she decided to enroll her in a local public preschool program this fall.
“When she got to preschool, they said that she was so advanced,” Barrett said. “And I bring that back to the Rosie bus. That’s what I owe it to. I could never have brought her to where she’s at by myself.”
After reading about a similar program in Colorado, Kirk and Gentry developed the Readiness Bus program in 2016. Their department at Berea College — located 60 miles away from Manchester, in Berea, Kentucky — applied for a grant from the Kellogg Foundation, and, after the department acquired the two buses, the program got off the ground several months later. (Note: The Kellogg Foundation is one of The Hechinger Report’s many funders.) From the outset, the two women knew that Partners in Education would run the program for two years, after which they would hand it over to local organizations, who would control staffing and assume operating costs.
From the beginning, each bus has had two adults onboard: an early childhood specialist who works with the children on fundamental academic and social skills, and a “family navigator,” who works with their caregivers. (Both adults take turns driving the bus, which is small enough that it does not require a special driver’s license.) Family navigators build relationships with caregivers, and help them identify goals — such as improving their family’s nutrition, getting out of debt, repairing their homes, or earning a GED — and the concrete steps needed to reach them. Additionally, the bus’s operators host evening events once a month, during which parents meet with community members who provide services such as financial planning or nutritional advice. These events also provide ways for caregivers to meet each other and share their struggles and childrearing strategies.
“If we’re going to make a significant impact on children’s learning and developing brains, we have to serve the whole family,” said Gentry, who credits work with parents and other caregivers as fundamental to the program’s success.
In the past two years, overseen by Berea College, the Sunny and Rosie buses have served nearly 100 preschoolers, ages 3 and 4, and their families. The buses will soon be operated by two local organizations: Rosie will be run and staffed by Red Bird Mission, a Christian social services organization in the town of Beverly, and Sunny will go to Save the Children, in neighboring Perry County. Though the organizations will adapt the curriculum slightly — Red Bird Mission, for instance, will add a Bible story to the literacy activities — the approach will remain largely unchanged. The Family Readiness Bus “complements what we are already doing,” said Kari Collins, Red Bird’s executive director.
Children and families in both of these areas face profound challenges. Appalachian Kentucky suffers from what the U.S. government terms “persistent poverty,” meaning that it has had poverty rates at or exceeding 20 percent for over 30 years.
The effects of this play out in a number of ways. A generation ago, the biggest employers in eastern Kentucky were coal companies, which received significant incentives, including tax breaks, from local and state governments to operate in the region. When the companies left, thousands of people found themselves unemployed, with no other job prospects in the area. The same governments that had incentivized the coal companies to come provided virtually no social services — such as job training programs, GED programs, or even food banks — to ease the void left by their departure. Widespread public preschool didn’t make the list either.
The counties served by the buses are also considered food deserts. Families, many of whom either do not have a car or can’t afford much gas, do not have anywhere nearby to find nutritious food. Many residents share the costs of an hour-long drive to a grocery store once a month, where they use their limited funds to buy processed food that will last the longest. As a result, many young children develop problems with both obesity and tooth decay. (Bill Collins, a local dentist, said that since the beginning of 2019, he has had to provide five full sets of dentures — top and bottom — to children under the age of 15.) The obesity rate for children ages 10 to 17 in Kentucky was 20.8 percent in 2018, the third highest in the country.
The family navigators staffing the buses have helped families tackle all these problems by connecting them with job training, home repair services, helping them find affordable ways to improve their diets, and more.
Most critically though, the buses offer a free, low-stress way for families to check out what school for 4-year-olds is really all about. Not counting the kids served by the buses, only 29 percent of Kentucky’s 4-year-olds attended publicly funded preschool in 2018, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. And only 51 percent of the state’s children enter kindergarten prepared to learn the curriculum, according to Kentucky’s 2018 kindergarten readiness results. The effects of this lack of preparation can persist into adulthood.
“Kindergarten readiness is tied to third grade reading, which has been tied to high school graduation—which is tied to college going,” Gentry explained.
However, in recent years, educators in the region have been facing another significant hurdle: meth and opioids. The rate of opioid deaths in Kentucky was 28 per 100,000 in 2017 — nearly double the national average of 15 per 100,000, according to the latest data available from the federal government. This has created a situation in which many children are being taken in by grandparents and other relatives, who may themselves be overwhelmed or otherwise ill-equipped to take on caring for needy, energetic young children. Statewide, 9 percent of Kentucky children live with relatives other than their parents, the highest proportion in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Locals estimate that the percentages in the counties served by Sunny and Rosie are much higher.
In Beverly, Kristy Roark, a kindergarten teacher who grew up in the area, said “there aren’t many intact families” and the consequences of that are manifold.
“When Grandma is taking care of them, they’re less likely to follow authority or be held accountable because they get whatever they ask for,” she said. “Grandma’s tired, and Grandma’s going to give you whatever you want so she can rest. Children lose their ability to problem-solve because a lot of time they watch videos which doesn’t stimulate the brain.”
But what Roark worries about most is the attitude of preemptive self-defeat she often encounters. “Families face stereotyping of ‘I’m from the mountains, I’m not smart enough to go to school.’ So that becomes, ‘I can’t be successful.’”
The Family Readiness Bus, she said, counters some of these effects. The students in her classroom who were served by Rosie and Sunny bring stronger academic and social skills than those who didn’t.
Aleah Wolsey, 5, is one of those students. “We did games, we would play with animals, we would do puzzles and stuff,” she recalled. “My favorite book was ‘One Time Froggy Made a Birthday Cake for His Mom.’” (She was referring, most likely, to “Froggy Bakes a Cake,” a picture book by Jonathan London.)
Among her classmates, Aleah is clearly a leader. On a recent visit, a group of girls watched admiringly as she demonstrated how to write the letter E. (And she was confident among adults as well. When a visitor, carrying a tablet, asked her how to spell her name, she took the tablet saying, “Oh, I’ll just type it myself.”)
Getting more kids on the same trajectory as Aleah is the goal of the preschool bus program, said Chris Morgan, who has worked as both an early childhood specialist and as a family navigator on the bus. He emphasized that in order to do this, family support was crucial. “Our primary thing was to empower parents to make sure that they were their child’s advocate from the time of birth all the way through school,” he said. “They have the ability to help their child learn — they’re the first and most important teacher that the child has. You just have to help them see that.”
Back in Manchester, as Paisley sat on the floor, making her way through a container with a picture of a cake on its lid — rake, bake, steak, snake — Barrett reflected on her family’s experience with Rosie. Her two-year-old son, Parker, sat in her lap; he would start his time on Rosie the following year. She hoped the little boy would develop a love of learning like his older sister.
“Paisley didn’t ever talk about going to school until we started the bus,” Barrett said. “But once we started the bus, she begged me every day, ‘When do I get to start school?’”
This story also appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.