Thanks to a large grant from the Blue Springs Education Foundation and countless donations, a retired school bus has been given a second life as a shiny new mobile computer lab that will bring new learning resources to children in every type of neighborhood in the Kansas City suburb.
This week, the Learning Bus is headed to an elementary school where the top 20 student readers will be rewarded with the chance to use e-readers while onboard. The sleek, blue 76-passenger was unveiled March 5 to a crowd of roughly 200 supporters.
Though the Learning Bus has made several public appearances, it will officially "get to work" the second week of April, said BSEF Executive Director Katherine Barton. The Women Endowing Education (WEE) Group, a subgroup of the education foundation, provided the Blue Springs School District with a multi-year grant to create the Learning Bus.
"The school district donated the bus they were going to take out of service. It has a new engine, two generators, A/C and heating and 20 laptop computers that are inside," Barton began, "It had to have an electrical plan. So we started with an architectural firm that was willing to take on this project, and they actually did it for free because they said it was a lot of fun. They designed the interior and exterior of the lab, and it really looks beautiful."
The purpose of the WEE grant was to have a large impact on student achievement for more than just one classroom, she explained. Many members of WEE are retired educators who believe in the power of education, and have committed to support the bus project for at least three years.
Starting next month, the bus will roll into a different neighborhood on weekday evenings between 5 and 9 p.m., giving students direct access to the Internet and educational websites, in particular Study Island, which provides Web-based, instruction, practice, assessment and reporting.
"Mid-Continent Library is partnering with us, and their website also connects to all kinds of good educational websites. So it sets up opportunities for students to come on the bus and access materials they normally wouldn't have access to at home," Barton continued. "Mid-Continent will give out library cards and enable children to check out books on the bus, and will host story times and book clubs."
When the Learning Bus is scheduled to visit a certain area, it will travel to a local school during the day to alert teachers, parents and students that it will be in their neighborhood that evening. The Blue Springs School District is approximately 58 square miles, according to Barton, and serves 15,000 students, primarily in Blue Springs but also in Lees Summit.
"We have committees working on logistics like routing as well as design and promotion. Blue Springs' Transportation Department has been very hands-on because all the actual installation has been done by transportation and building and grounds personnel ... They would be working on that bus right alongside other buses in the shop," she noted.
Down the line, Barton said the WEE group plans to utilize the Learning Bus for GED classes and ACT test preparation courses during the school day and on weekends.
"Instructional coaches from the high schools are willing to give their time for these classes. It's really a community effort," she said. "Dr. Mirabella Carter, a member of the WEE group, suggested it could be used for ACT prep and offered to be the instructor. Dr. Bill Cowling, the district's assistant superintendent of management services, wrote the grant."
The Siemens Company donated the computers, Sprint supplied the connectivity for the Internet, another company donated the electrical plan and another designed and fabricated the posts that support the seats and countertops, Barton recalled
In addition, Brian Unger, the host of the History Channel program "How the States Got Their Shapes," was working with the Blue Springs Deputy Superintendent at a large history conference in Kansas City, and when the Learning Bus was mentioned, he made a "very healthy" contribution, Barton said, quick to add that other donors have also been generous.
"All kinds of companies, organizations and individuals stepped up to offer their support," she stressed. "The Home Team, a volunteer group, helps link parents with the school bus and with other services in the district, such as after-school tutoring or even a pair of reading glasses. Truman Medical Center volunteered as a partner, and they have a mobile unit and can do health checks, distribute information, etc.
"The library and medical center are two important connections that have made a difference."