BUST'R and BETSIE bring pre-K programs to Burke County, N.C.

The American School Board Journal has announced the recipients of the 2003 Magna Awards for advancing student learning through school board leadership. The unlikely grand prize winners: BUST'R and BETSIE, two refurbished school buses that serve as mobile pre-K classrooms in rural Burke County, N.C.

Since January of 2001, BUST'R, BETSIE, and an enthusiastic quartet of teachers have been hard at work touring mobile-home communities and church parking lots, helping youngsters through an innovative pre-K curriculum.

"If they can't come to us, why can't we go to them?" says Superintendent David Burleson of the underserved 3- and 4-year-olds in Burke County. "We want our kids arriving for kindergarten on a level playing field, but they don't all have the chance."

The idea behind the award-winning "Rolling with Pre-K" program evolved into a collaborative effort between school-district officials and community partners.

"We saw the McSmiles [day-care] program in a neighboring community bringing supplemental services to those in need and figured we could do something similar and bring a pre-K program to communities that didn't have one," Mr. Burleson says.

The buses, BUST'R (Building Upon Strength Through Reading) and BETSIE (Bringing Everyone Technological Success in Education) were remodeled by a local high school woodshop class and then outfitted with generators, toilets, and donated laptop computers. Each bus serves six sites in Burke County, and the teachers conduct 90-minute instructional sessions twice a week.

"You wouldn't believe how excited the kids are when they tell their friends they literally go to school on a bus," teacher Rhonda Pearson says. "They complain we only come twice a week."

The program has already served more than 400 children.

"We've got parents involved and meeting as part of an advisory group.... We are doing more home visits than we expected - all [of these] are positive surprises," Burleson says.

As word of the program spreads, says Burleson, BUST'R and BETSIE are having trouble meeting the high demand. "In a perfect world, we'd have enough buses so that we didn't have to have a waiting list," he says.

The Burke County program and this year's other Magna Award winners were honored Monday at the National School Boards Association's annual conference in San Francisco.

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