Gus Bus puts early education preparedness on wheels

“Indeed, it is widely reckoned that, in modern societies, ‘literacy skills are fundamental to informed decision-making, personal empowerment, active and passive participation in local and global social community’” -UNESCO (Stromquist, 2005, p. 12).

Preparing for Kindergarten brings a flurry of activity, from gathering new pencils to learning the way home from the bus stop.   But when the first day comes around, some children are underprepared in a less visible way: basic literacy skills.

In 2004, a group of elementary education professionals led by Pat Kennedy recognized the need for early literacy development in Harrisonburg-Rockingham and Page County.  50% of kindergartners, coming from homes which lacked books or spoke languages other than English, began their education without a foundation of the language their lessons would be taught in.  This could potentially set half of the area’s student population behind their English-speaking, literate peers for years to come.  Kennedy and the educators decided to address the problem without ever sending families to a library- they would instead mobilize and bring a library to them.

 The Reading Road Show, dubbed the Gus Bus, makes early learning convenient for families with young children by traveling to neighborhoods with the highest need as far as Stanley in Page County.  Students served by the bus frequently receive free/reduced lunch and speak English as a second language.
“Children are able to check out books and read with volunteers on the bus,” said Program Coordinator Jolynne Bartley.  “Neighborhood enrichment reinforces the importance of reading and aims to foster a lifelong love of learning.”

Other programs under the Reading Road Show include free tutoring and STEAM-focused after school care at Spotswood and Stone Spring Elementary Schools.

“STEAM allows children the opportunity to problem solve, be creative, work together, and foster academic language using a hands-on approach,” said Bartley.

The Virginia Department of Education 21st Century Community Learning Center provides a grant that funds the Gus Bus.  Community partners including Second Home, the Boys and Girls Club, Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, and Massanutten Regional Library also support the Road Show.

As for staff, nearly all tutors are student volunteers who commit for a semester or more.

“Being a trusted and caring place for children to learn within the community is so important to our staff,” said Bartley. “JMU student volunteers play a pivotal role in the success of the Gus Bus.”

The program has now been on the road for 13 years and become a beloved part of local communities.  In 2016, First Lady Michelle Obama awarded the Reading Road Show one of 12 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards. Bartley hopes that as success continues, services begin to reach further.

“Ideally, we would like to have more Gus Bus mobile literacy vehicles that will allow the program to grow,” said Bartley.

 

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