Gus the Bus Goes the Extra Mile for Learning 2

Cradle to Career Initiative Invests in the Youth of the Roaring Fork Valley

Imagine a friendly, bright yellow school bus rolling into a down-valley residential neighborhood. The bus is met by eager parents, some Spanish-speaking, some English-speaking, all carrying or holding hands with their young children. Most of these kids can’t wait to get on board, and when they do, they find a colorful, state-of-the-art preschool classroom, equipped with books, games, puzzles, toys, and of course, a welcoming teacher. This happy scene is not a vision for the future, but a present reality in our valley.

The Preschool on Wheels program is a small but vital part of the much larger project known as the Aspen to Parachute Cradle to Career Initiative (CCI), whose “backbone organization” is Aspen Community Foundation (ACF).

ACF was founded in 1980 to support non-profits and connect donors to community needs. In 2010, ACF conducted a self-assessment and determined they were not having the desired impact in the region, especially in the area of child education and development. What was needed was the “collective impact” of area-wide organizations collaborating to build youth success. So in 2012, ACF launched the Cradle to Career Initiative, a hugely ambitious program supported valley-wide by more than 100 schools, banks, arts centers, youth organizations, business leaders, churches, libraries, Rotary Clubs and other organizations.

It’s a long, long road from the cradle to a career. That metaphorical road becomes a literal one along the 80-mile corridor that begins in Aspen and ends in Parachute. Along this corridor live 22,000 children who belong to working-class families and parents who commute long hours to work. Current statistics regarding these children’s economic and educational levels can be startling. For example, more than 75 percent of Rifle’s elementary school children qualify for free or subsidized lunches; half of low-income third-grade children perform below grade level in reading; more than 25 percent of low-income students do not graduate from high school. When CCI was created, only seven percent of low-income kids were attending preschool.

Obviously, these numbers do not bode well for the health of our communities or for the futures of our children. After extensive study, the CCI partners identified four major goals necessary to achieve youth success.

CCI Director John Bennett strives to educate local residents about the need to improve educational quality and access. Behind all the sad educational numbers are many real-life families with real-life children who have not had access to a preschool education. Experts agree that kindergarten is one of the most important building blocks to school success, and Bennett often speaks of the “kindergarten gap”—the fact that children without preschool too often begin kindergarten as much as 18 months behind their peers. “They start that far behind, and many never catch up,” he says.

But what is the solution, when both parents work all day and when preschool programs are either too expensive or too far away? Susan Birdsey, former superintendent of the Garfield Re-2 School District, explained that because of budget cuts, “We can’t serve preschool kids the way we’d like to.” An answer came in the proposal that Aspen Community Foundation partner with the school district. As Tamara Tormohlen, ACF’s executive director, puts it, they decided, “Let’s do something different. Let’s take the preschools to the kids!”

Thus was born “Preschools on Wheels.” First came Gus the Bus, a retro-fitted school bus that takes a classroom to neighborhoods in Rifle. Next came the Sunshine Bus, which serves three- to five-year-old children in Silt and New Castle. Together they provide free, quality, bilingual preschool education to 120 children, and they are the first mobile preschools to be licensed by the State of Colorado. The two buses now serve three communities and 12 neighborhoods for eight hours a week.

Teachers Kim Gorsett, Elizabeth Russo, Rhonda Kachevar and Isela Menchaca do more than teach. They arrive at the bus garage early to check the oil, lights, tires and brakes. Bus driver/auto mechanic/teacher—it’s all in a day’s work!

So is it making a difference? Dan and Ashley Mickelson of Silt think so. Their older son studied in Gus the Bus, and now their younger son, Calder, attends the Sunshine Bus. Ashley said home daycare is available in Silt, but there’s no preschool. Calder is shy. “But he’s getting used to the classroom setting, learning how to interact with peers and developing social skills,” according to his mom.

Christina Ruiz agrees, “We’re not able to afford preschool, but this is such a great way for [my son] to get education. The learning, the social experience, it’s all been really great. Because of Sunshine Bus, we have peace of mind, and we are confident that our son will be prepared and will do great when it’s time for him to go to kindergarten.”

Another mom, Ia Faroni, says that before Sunshine, her son wouldn’t interact with other children. When they went to play groups, he would just sit on her lap. “But after Sunshine, he wants to play with kids, and when the teacher asks him questions, he confidently answers them,” she says.

All parents are expected to attend monthly parent meetings and to volunteer in the classrooms. During parenting sessions, which are conducted in both English and Spanish, parents learn about health issues, social and emotional development, educational strategies, and perhaps even more importantly, they have time to share their parenting experiences with each other.

Since Preschool on Wheels began in 2012, individuals, businesses and governments have supported the program, whose annual budget is $350,000. ACF stresses the value of this investment: “Every dollar invested in early childhood education returns $4 to $9 to the public as a result of reduced special education, welfare, and crime costs as well as increased tax revenues from participants later in life.”

Valerie Carlin, deputy director of Aspen Community Foundation, concurs with this far-reaching view. “We’re in it for the long haul,” she says. “We’re trying to impact a generation.”

Anyone wishing to donate should contact ACF’s deputy director valerie@aspencommunityfoundation.org.