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Four-year-old Paisley Barrett’s first experience with preschool was on a bus, with a teacher all to herself, that came right to her rural Kentucky home.
In the foothills of the Appalachians, a pair of teacher-staffed and -driven buses is helping to address a persistent need for early childhood education. Along with the logistical challenges of reaching children living in poverty and isolation, families also question the value of prekindergarten in general. Tennant Kirk, one of the creators of this program, often hears, “Why should a 4-year-old go to school?”
The family readiness buses are answering this question for skeptics. An early childhood specialist works with children on academic and social skills, while a “family navigator” helps caregivers to identify goals – improving nutrition, getting out of debt, or earning a GED diploma – and the steps to achieve them.
“If we’re going to make a significant impact on children’s learning and developing brains, we have to serve the whole family,” says Dreama Gentry, who developed the bus program with Ms. Kirk.
Paisley’s mother has seen the benefits. “Once we started the bus,” says Ashley Barrett, “she begged me every day, ‘When do I get to start school?’”
Inside Rosie, a colorful minibus that crisscrosses the countryside here in eastern Kentucky, 4-year-old Paisley Barrett brushes her finger over the curled tail of a tiny toy in a plastic box.
“This here’s a fox,” she declares. Her teacher, Tennant Kirk, nods encouragingly.
Paisley names a few more of the toys – blocks, locks, rocks – before arriving at one that gives her pause. Ms. Kirk turns to Paisley’s mother, Ashley Barrett. “I think a lot of children these days have never seen one of these,” she says. Ms. Kirk turns back to Paisley to reinforce an important prereading skill, demonstrating that “clocks” rhymes with the names of all the other toys in the container.
Paisley nods, and reaches for another box. “I just love her enthusiasm,” Ms. Kirk tells Ms. Barrett. “She is so ready for kindergarten.”
In the lush foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, where families in small towns like Manchester face a paucity of preschool options, Rosie bus is helping to address a deep and persistent need. Not only are there the logistical challenges of reaching young children living in poverty and isolation, but families question the value of prekindergarten programs in general. “Why should a 4-year-old go to school?” Ms. Kirk says she’s often asked.
Some families meet income requirements for Head Start, the federally funded preschool program for low-income children, but attendance means sending small children on a bus ride that could last over an hour. Though some children qualify for local public preschool options (either by age or income), figuring out the requirements is often difficult for parents to navigate, Ms. Kirk says.
But after Paisley participated in nearly two years of Rosie Bus lessons, her mother was able to enroll her in a local public preschool program this fall. When Ms. Kirk dropped by to check in, Ms. Barrett was pleased with her daughter’s progress.
“When she got to preschool, they said that she was so advanced,” Ms. Barrett says. “And I bring that back to the Rosie bus. I could never have brought her to where she’s at by myself.”
“We have to serve the whole family”
After reading about a similar program in Colorado, Ms. Kirk and Dreama Gentry developed the family readiness bus program in 2016 with a Kellogg Foundation grant. Ms. Kirk is the early childhood project director at Berea College’s Partners for Education, and Ms. Gentry is executive director. Each of their two buses has two adults on board: an early childhood specialist who works with children on fundamental academic and social skills, and a “family navigator,” who works with caregivers. To bring school to where a child lives, both adults take turns driving the bus, which is small enough that it does not require a special driver’s license.
Family navigators help caregivers identify goals – improving nutrition, getting out of debt, repairing their homes, or earning a GED diploma – and the concrete steps needed to reach them. Additionally, the bus’ operators host evenings once a month when parents meet with community members who provide services such as financial planning or nutritional advice. Caregivers themselves can share struggles and child-rearing strategies.
“If we’re going to make a significant impact on children’s learning and developing brains, we have to serve the whole family,” says Ms. Gentry.
In the past two years, the Sunny and Rosie buses have served nearly 100 preschoolers, ages 3 and 4, and their families. The buses are now operated by two local organizations: Red Bird Mission in the town of Beverly; and Save the Children, in neighboring Perry County. The organizations may adapt the curriculum slightly – Red Bird Mission, for instance, will add a Bible story to the literacy activities. The family readiness bus “complements what we are already doing,” says Kari Collins, Red Bird’s executive director.
Trying out school
Appalachian Kentucky, where Sunny and Rosie roam, suffers from what the U.S. government terms “persistent poverty,” meaning that it has had poverty rates at or exceeding 20% for more than 30 years. The effects play out in a number of ways. A generation ago, the biggest employers in eastern Kentucky were coal companies, which received significant incentives from local and state governments to operate in the region. When the companies left, thousands of people found themselves with no job prospects. Virtually no social services – such as job training programs, GED programs, or even food banks – eased the void left by coal’s departure.
The counties served by the buses are also considered food deserts. 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. Many young children develop both obesity and tooth decay, giving Kentucky the third highest child obesity rate in the U.S.
While the navigators help connect people with services, the buses most critically offer a free, low-stress way for families to check out what school for 4-year-olds is really all about. Just 29% of Kentucky’s 4-year-olds attended publicly funded preschool in 2018, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. And only 51% of the state’s children enter kindergarten prepared to learn the curriculum. 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,” Ms. Gentry explains.
Supporting a new view of self
In recent years, meth and opioid abuse have created a situation in which many children are being taken in by grandparents and other relatives, who may themselves be ill-equipped to care for young children. 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. Statewide, 9% of Kentucky children live with relatives other than their parents, the highest proportion in the nation. 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, says “there aren’t many intact families” and the consequences of that are manifold.
“When grandma is taking care of them, [children are] less likely to follow authority or be held accountable because they get whatever they ask for,” she says. “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.”
Ms. Roark worries about 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.’” Yet 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,” Aleah recalls.
Among her classmates, Aleah is clearly a leader. On a recent visit, a group of girls watches admiringly as she demonstrates how to write the letter E. When a visitor, carrying a tablet, asks her how to spell her name, she takes the tablet saying, “Oh, I’ll just type it myself.”
Getting more kids on the same trajectory as Aleah is the goal, says Chris Morgan, who has worked as both an early childhood specialist and as a family navigator on the bus. He emphasizes that family support is 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 says. “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 sits on the floor, making her way through a small box with a picture of a cake on its lid – rake, bake, steak, snake – Ms. Barrett reflects on her family’s experience with Rosie. Her two-year-old son, Parker, sits in her lap; he will start his time on Rosie next year. She hopes the little boy will develop a love of learning like his older sister.
“Paisley didn’t ever talk about going to school until we started the bus,” Ms. Barrett says. “But once we started the bus, she begged me every day, ‘When do I get to start school?’”