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How "Classrooms on Wheels" Continue to Reach Rural Preschoolers During the Pandemic

July 2020

“We’re helping families watch their kids grow and learn in ways they don’t always get to see.”

Preschool opportunities are limited in Nevada’s rural high desert, so a local full-service family support nonprofit organization, Community Chest, Inc., has been reaching and teaching 3- and 4-year-olds who would not otherwise have access to a pre-K education. A substantial body of research has established the benefits of preschool education to young children’s ongoing academic learning and development of social and emotional skills. REL West’s Senior Researcher BethAnn Berliner recently spoke with Community Chest’s preschool program director Cindy Boyd and two of the program’s teachers, Brandy Ayers and Sara Eastman. These staff shared how they help ensure kindergarten readiness and how their program pivoted during the pandemic—issues of importance to RELs and their partners across the country. Here’s what they had to say about how they brought their preschool program into students’ homes while schools have temporarily closed.

The COW Bus

Cow bus

Community Chest brings preschool to students where they live via a “herd of COWs”—a fleet of five old school buses, now painted white with tan spots to look like cows, with each one retrofitted inside to serve as a self-contained preschool classroom. Each classroom on wheels, or COW bus as they’re known, comes with learning stations, toys, books, and other teaching and learning supplies. Herding each COW bus is a teacher/driver who brings it to small towns like Stagecoach and Tonapah, Nevada offering pre-K classes four days a week in either morning or afternoon sessions. The COW bus curriculum, which is aligned with the Nevada pre-K content standards, includes story time, music, gross and fine motor exercises, cooperative play, and exploration of reading, math, and science.

Due to the remoteness of where students live and their families’ poverty, many preschoolers reportedly enter the program without having much experience with coloring, using scissors, or playing with children other than their own siblings. Catching up before kindergarten is key to these children making that transition successfully. For that reason, preference is given to 4-year-olds to enroll in the COW bus program first, and there’s nearly always a wait list for younger children. The program aligns its readiness development activities with the local kindergartens, and COW bus teachers also conduct kindergarten classroom visits with their preschoolers and families to help ease the transition. “Together with the schools,” Boyd explained, “we get them ready to succeed.”

Preschool is for Families, Too

COW bus carries toys, books, and school supplies.

While the COW buses operate as preschools, they’re also part of a broader approach to family support and parent education undertaken by Community Chest. “Our families live on the edge, with food and housing insecurity,” explained Boyd. “Some don’t always have money for groceries or medicine or propane, let alone for preschool. They live far from community services and many don’t have cars.” So the COW buses also bring preschool families food, clothes, and toys supplied by Community Chest. One bus even hauled a washing machine to a struggling family whose child was missing morning classes because the parents and child were exhausted after regularly traveling down the mountain to access a laundromat and driving home late into the night. COW bus teachers also work with parents to help them gain a deeper understanding of child development and of how to enrich early learning in everyday activities, to promote positive behaviors, and to access health, counseling, and other services.

Pivoting to Teaching Parents

As with the widespread closing of K–12 school buildings, the COW buses themselves have been temporarily closed. Yet preschool remains in session through virtual supports. “At first I felt panic,” recalled Ayers, one of the program teachers, “because preschool is interactive, it’s hands on, and it’s play-based.” Fellow COW bus teacher Eastman said she, too, had been worried, including about “how to teach skills like lining up, hanging up backpacks, putting papers in folders—all the self-sufficiency skills needed in kindergarten—while children are at home.” So, over a few weeks, the COW bus team pivoted, from teaching 3- and 4-year-olds to coaching their parents as home-based preschool teachers. Using email check-ins, meeting apps, and Google Classroom, or the phone for those without internet connectivity, teachers have stayed in touch with parents about curriculum, instruction, and engagement. They’ve helped parents to use online books, materials for activities, and brief videos of the COW bus teachers teaching lessons, demonstrating craft activities, singing songs, and reading stories. They’ve “printed, prepped, and delivered ready-to-go learning packets and made doorstep deliveries to families,” said Ayers, who noted that “because development varies so widely for preschoolers, and family needs and capacities differ, coaching parents isn’t one-size-fits-all.” It entails developing a one-on-one relationship, meeting families where they’re at, providing information, modeling skills, and showing compassion, she explained.

Staying Positive

Art projects hanging along the cabinets on COW bus.

“So many things have changed with the pandemic, but the building blocks for getting children ready for kindergarten remain the same,” said Ayers. So, until the COW bus team can bring mobile preschools back to their communities, they’re bringing preschool into children’s homes. “What leaves me feeling hopeful about this shift,” added Eastman, “is that we’re helping families watch their kids grow and learn in ways they don’t always get to see.”

To access useful resources and to learn more about REL West’s work with preschool access, rural education, family engagement, and distance learning, please visit the following pages:

  • Access resources for educators and families on our COVID-19 Response resource page, including:
    • Resources for educators on how to engage and support families in at-home learning during COVID-19
    • An archived webinar on how to engage parents and students from diverse populations in the context of distance learning
    • A list of free digital resources for teachers, parents, and caregivers to support early math learning
    • Resources on how districts can promote a safe and secure digital learning environment
  • Read our blog post about how REL West is supporting improved access to high-quality preschool in Fresno County, CA
  • Learn about how REL West is supporting rural schools, districts, and school-based health professionals to improve education and health outcomes in California’s Central Valley

Photos: with permission from Community Chest, Inc.