Petersburg City Public Schools is utilizing a school bus named “The Wave” to reengage families and break outreach barriers following the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The district located south of Richmond, Virginia, includes the Petersburg High School Crimson Waves (the name inspiration for the bus) and welcomed back elementary students starting on March 17 after being virtual for most of the school year. On April 12, it allowed the return of all grade levels but at this report was only at 30 percent capacity, with a majority of students choosing to remain in virtual learning.
Pamela Bell, Petersburg City’s chief student advancement officer, previously served as the director of family community engagement at nearby Henrico County Public Schools. It was there that she repurposed a bus as a bookmobile. Drawing on that experience and seeing how it engaged the low-income community, she set out to accomplish a similar feat at her new district.
The Wave family engagement bus was born, and it was unveiled to the public on April 23, less than a year after the project began.
The school bus was retrofitted to better meet the needs of families and students. Seats were removed and file cabinets and bookshelves were added. Desks that can seat up to six people were installed. Storage space was added to the back of the bus, as well as under the benches and desks. The floors were redone, and the bus was repainted. A generator was installed to provide air conditioning and heat.
The total retrofit cost came to $75,000, paid for with Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, Act funding the district received, as well as federal Title I funding.
The Wave’s Purpose
Bell and her team are currently working to identify key locations throughout the community where a high concentration of students live. The bus will visit these neighborhoods and allow students to check out books, as well as hang out and receive resources for any needs they have. The activities don’t just take place on the bus itself. Volunteers also set up space outside of the bus to engage community members.
Bell explained that the bus is designed to be an on-site workshop. The school district is also working with community partners to park the bus in public parking lots, such as at Walmart and Target stores. The district is also looking to bring the bus to local churches.
The bus serves a variety of purposes including but not limited to helping adults fill out job applications, create resumes, learn interview skills, and attend workshops.
“The main purpose is really family outreach,” Bell said. “It’s part of our family and community engagement and parent resource center, and we say that because we carry all types of resources for families. There will be information for parents who have students with disabilities, we have translated documents for [Spanish speaking] parents. … It will provide information about drug abuse, about college, have you completed a federal student aid form?”
She said there will also be information available to students who are interested in applying to colleges or trade schools. The bus will also offer resources about different events that are happening throughout the community or the district.
“It’s about building trust with [the community],” Bell said. “Many times, parents don’t come to our school [buildings], whether it’s transportation, or not having positive experiences themselves in school. And so, we really have been working hard about building great relationships and trust with our families and providing what they need to build the relationship while helping them along the way and helping to empower them.”
She added that the bus serves as an information hub.
“So, when [families] come by, they can certainly get books for themselves. We have adult books on there as well as books for kids. And then we will also have information about things that are coming up in the district, and will be able to answer questions, for instance, if they have questions about technology,” Bell said. “We’ll be able to provide a list of what workshops are coming up. Or if they have questions about their child’s Individual Education Program and so we’ll have we have a whole section of information for them on that, so that they are well informed on acronyms. We’re just trying to look at every department that we have in our district and how do we provide that information on the bus, so that no matter where persons go when they come on the bus, we’re able to respond. It also means that we’re providing training for all of our student support specialists, those who work the bus, so they are able to answer those questions as well.”
During the summer, the district will also offer students tutoring in subjects like reading and math, as well as activities like bowling.
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“For those [students] who don’t get an opportunity to go anywhere or travel anywhere, it’s almost like a little mobile carnival that students may come to throughout summer,” Bell said. “We will provide snacks for our students and fun activities.” She added there is also the ability to show movies through a projector.
Bell noted the district transportation department oversees the bus and provides maintenance and fuel. She added that school bus drivers will also transport the vehicle to various locations, similar to the field trips or sporting events they perform.
Bell and her team staff the Wave bus and are creating the summer schedule and daily activities. Students don’t have to sign up ahead of time to participate, she said. They need only to show up in order to access services. Bell added that the district continues to solicit partners and volunteers because they need a lot of helping hands.
The concept has been a hit with local residents.
“It’s a blessing to be able to do this and it’s a sense of pride for our community, but it’s also really about the outreach for our families,” Bell shared. “I just keep thinking that it’s a symbol of love when they see it and we did it for them. We did it to be able to go to them and to provide for them. And that’s the main purpose, it really is.”
She added that the idea for the bus comes from a place of “heart work.”
“[B]ut it’s really heart work and hard work because you lift those heavy tables and chairs and you’re setting it up when it’s 90 degrees [outside]. … I just believe that to truly reach people, you got to go the extra mile and do something extra.”