By Mike Marsee
The bus pulls up on a side street and almost immediately the children start showing up.
The kids don’t know anything about summer slide or the work people in the Daviess County schools are doing to prevent it. They only know that the Exploration Station brings fun every time it rolls into their neighborhood.
The Exploration Station, a bus that has been converted into a rolling educational center for Daviess County schools, allowed elementary schools in the district to do far more with their summer programs this year by helping them go directly to their target audiences.
Teachers and principals visited neighborhoods where the children have had a high rate of summer slide, offering programs that focused on literacy and touched on subjects such as mathematics, science, art and physical education to students in the greatest need of help.
“When we’ve had summer programs in the past, the kids that we typically get are not our target kids,” said Caleb York, principal at Audubon Elementary School. “What we needed was to reach those select kids, and we felt like to bring them in, we needed to go to them. It’s exciting to have a mobile unit that goes to the demographic that we’re hoping to get.”
Six of Daviess County’s 12 elementary schools used the Exploration Station on a weekly basis this summer, reaching students they had struggled to reach before.
“Some principals came to me a year ago and said they wanted a way to get out into the neighborhoods and work with some of these kids to prevent summer slide,” said Vicki Quisenberry, the director of the Foundation for Daviess County Public Schools, who led the effort to get the bus on the road in a relatively short time.
Funding wasn’t secured until February, after which it was a race to get a bus retired from the district’s fleet a few months early and ready for use by June. The interior was outfitted with seating, storage, large computer monitors, Wi-Fi and air conditioning, and the bus was decked out with colorful graphics.
“We’re trying to make it fun. It is summer, after all,” said Heather Lee, a 4th- and 5th-grade social studies and English/language arts teacher at Southern Oaks Elementary.
Leann Pickerill, the Academic Core Branch manager in the Kentucky Department of Education’s Division of Program Standards, said Daviess County’s use of the Exploration Station benefits both its students and the entire community.
“When school districts begin to use innovative ways to meet the needs of the students, children are the winners,” Pickerill said. “Not only is Daviess County making educational strides with this program, but also continuing to build a solid rapport with all shareholders in the community.”
Daviess County school bus driver Jennifer Hamlet drove the Exploration Station for most of the summer and said she saw the same reaction again after again as children came inside for the first time.
“I loved watching their faces light up when they came through the door. They had never seen anything like it,” Hamlet said. “They came in and they were just blown away, their faces lit up and their eyes wide.”
The Exploration Station served about 300 to 350 children each week. It also partnered with Daviess County’s Summer Feeding Program to take hundreds of lunches and healthy snacks to children in at-risk neighborhoods and was a fixture at downtown Owensboro’s Friday After 5 program, where meals and donated books were given to children.
Each school provided its own staff and its own curriculum when the bus visited neighborhoods it serves.
“They all do something different and they all know their kids. They know what their kids need,” Quisenberry said.
The staff at Southern Oaks Elementary works with a large number of students who are part of Daviess County’s growing refugee population. The school focused on those students this summer, bringing the bus to a neighborhood where children speak at least nine different languages and dialects other than English.
“Any exposure we can get them to English is our goal, and when they see you in their neighborhood, they come out,” music teacher Kara Westerfield said. “It’s really important we learn to make connections.”
Southern Oaks educators created a lesson plan for their weekly visits, building learning stations both inside and outside the bus around a single theme. On a recent Monday afternoon, that theme focused on Kentucky’s place in the world as teachers helped children with roots in faraway places understand where they are.
“The first couple of times we were just getting our bearings, and now it’s very well organized, and it’s making a pretty good impression on the kids,” Lee said.
Audubon staff members gave students time to sit and read on the bus, led educational games and had conferences with the students.
Whitesville Elementary emphasized its accelerated reader program and gave a high number of accelerated reader exams. At Southern Oaks, where the language barrier is often profound, that wasn’t practical.
“They’re all doing it a little differently, and it seems like they’re making a good impact in the neighborhoods they’re going into,” Hamlet said. “The kids are learning and they don’t realize they’re learning.”
Students at every stop took home free books. A book drive netted about 700 books that were sorted by reading level and given away.
“When they get to go through boxes of books and pick out something that they see and love, their face lights up, because they know it’s theirs, they chose it,” Westerfield said.
Sarah Velotta, the assistant principal at Audubon Elementary, said the free books were her favorite part about her work with the bus.
“I conference with the students on how often they’ve been reading over the summer, what books they took and what they’ve been reading at home. I encourage them to read every single day. The next time they come, I can look back at my notes and say, ‘So how’s that Harry Potter book you’ve been reading?’” Velotta said.
Administrators, teachers, family resource center employees and instructional coaches worked with students on the bus. Some were paid staff, while others volunteered their time.
“I think the thing that impresses me more than anything is the passion that these teachers and staff have for working with these at-risk kids,” Quisenberry said. “We’re hoping that this will build into a love of learning for the kids and increases the value of education for them.”
School officials hope to make a better effort next summer to reach young children who aren’t in school yet. Those children came to the bus with older siblings, but very few of the donated books were at their level. Quisenberry said she hopes to obtain a grant for next year to remedy that.
“We’ve got a 50 percent kindergarten readiness rate, so we’re trying to address that,” she said.
Quisenberry hopes more schools will use the Exploration Station next year, and it will get plenty of use during the school year, too. She said it also will be used for after-school programs, family fun nights and other functions and as a collection center during drives for books, school supplies, coats and toys.
“My goal is to have it out for every hour of every day,” she said.
MORE INFO …
Heather Lee firstname.lastname@example.org
Vicki Quisenberry email@example.com
Sarah Velotta firstname.lastname@example.org
Kara Westerfield email@example.com
Caleb York firstname.lastname@example.org