By Madelynn Coldiron
When kids run for the school bus, it’s usually because they’re late. When Henderson County Schools’ summer Brain Bus pulls into Woodsview Apartments, they run for a different reason.
“It’s a good idea – it gives them something to do. When they see that bus pull up, they run,” said resident Terrence Belle, whose fourth-grade son, Talyn, took advantage of the bus this year and last year as well.
The surplus school bus, its exterior festooned with colorful graphics, has been gutted and retrofitted with individual computer stations, where children can learn while having fun with games and other electronic activities.
National research shows children lose ground academically during the summer and “kids in poverty will lose more,” said Marganna Stanley, the district’s assistant superintendent for administration.
PHOTO: Fifth-grader Alexis Sutton helps a younger student with one of the computer games. Primarily aimed at the elementary and middle grades, the bus attracts student at all levels.
The Wi-Fi-enabled, air-conditioned mobile tech lab began making its rounds in 2011. It was the brainchild of a team from a community leadership program whose members included several then-school district employees who were concerned about the dip in student scores between spring and fall.
Knowing that some children would not have transportation, “we thought, why not take it to them,” said Ellen Redding, former district employee who now works for Northwest Kentucky Forward.
The leadership program raised funds and got donations of laptops and other supplies and services for the bus, which was donated by the district. The program now is fully under the school system’s aegis.
During June and July, the Brain Bus targets mostly low-income areas where large numbers of children reside. It spends two hours at each of the eight stops over a four-day week. However, the schedule is flexible. Bus driver John Haynes, who also is a substitute teacher, said a crowd isn’t always guaranteed. In some spots, he said, few turn out and in other locations, kids are “lined up waiting for a computer.”
This year one site didn’t draw any participants so the district switched to another location.
That wasn’t the case at Woodsview, where sisters Madalynn and Shelby Terrell were among those climbing aboard.
“It’s great – it’s entertaining and you get to spend time with your friends,” third-grader Shelby Terrell said. Fifth-grader Alexis Sutton, meanwhile, not only played games herself, but helped younger students with theirs.
“We’ve had anywhere from kids who are just going into preschool to a few high schoolers,” said newly certified teacher Rachel O’Nan, who is stationed on the bus. “Every time we come, we get a couple of new ones.”
The district will track the performance of students who used the Brain Bus this summer to try to gauge the academic effect. The community leadership program did that last year, Redding said, and found “We had over 60 percent had an increase in their test scores – both math and reading. Those were just the kids we could track. We just looked at an increase in scores – we didn’t even look at the ones that stayed the same, and in reality those scores that stayed the same is still a win because they didn’t fall back.”
Children are on the bus a relatively short time, so the kind of progress they might make in a regular summer school offering is not possible, Stanley said.
“It’s voluntary so a student might have two hours a week (on the Brain Bus), maximum,” she said. “If they stay where they are or increase, we would be very pleased.”
There are also less empirical benefits, she said: “You can’t really measure this, but increasing their love of learning.”
O’Nan said the experience also helps those without computers or Internet access at home feel more comfortable with technology in a setting where they aren’t afraid to ask questions.
The Brain Bus was put to use for adults when the district wanted to show parents who work at one of the area’s large employers how Infinite Campus can be used to access their children’s records and grades. The plant didn’t have a computer lab-type setup available, “so we thought, ‘We have a lab on wheels’” Stanley said, and brought the bus to the factory.
This summer, in addition to its regular rounds, the bus visited a Boy Scout day camp at the group’s request.
“I think we’ll find lots of ways to use it,” Stanley said.