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How a classroom on wheels is expanding access to early education

Although preschool can provide children with a vital foundation for success later in life, only 43 percent of four-year-olds nationwide have access to public preschool. The rate varies widely, with no options available in some rural and low-income areas, sometimes called "childcare deserts." But a community outside Denver has found an innovative way to bring education to kids. Amna Nawaz reports.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Preschool can provide children with a solid and lasting foundation for success later in life, but fewer than half of all 4-year-olds in the U.S., just 43 percent, have access to a public preschool, and that rate varies by state. Some rural or low-income areas have no option at all.

    One community outside Denver, Colorado, has found an innovative way to bring education to students, with a classroom on wheels.

    We visited the mobile preschool at the end of the school year in May to see the impact it's having on the kids and families it serves.

    It's part of our education series, Making the Grade.

  • Ashley Parke:

    Ready?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Most weekday mornings for Ashley Parke and her son, Clinton, begin the same way

  • Ashley Parke:

    All right, I will be back, guys.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    With a short walk to the school bus.

  • Ashley Parke:

    And let's go.

  • Child:

    And then we got to go left.

  • Ashley Parke:

    Left. That's right.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But this bus won't bring Clinton to school. It is the school. Retrofitted into a classroom, and parked in this Thornton, Colorado, mobile home community, this shuttle bus is the only viable child care option for some young children like Clinton.

    If the bus wasn't here, would he be in another school program?

  • Ashley Parke:

    Probably not.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Why not?

  • Ashley Parke:

    Because it's expensive. I don't know that we could afford to send him to another preschool program.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The school on wheels sets up each morning beside this park. Eight children, ages 3 to 6, attend the morning session. Most speak Spanish at home. This community is over 90 percent Latino.

    Teachers Allie Davis and Christy Feller lead them through their day, with attendance, songs, and a weather report.

    Who's excited to come to school every day? Raise your hand. Everyone's excited? Why are you excited? Why do you like school?

  • Child:

    Because we can do (INAUDIBLE). And there's a park.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    While the students head to recess in the park, Davis shows us how they fit an entire classroom into a small space.

  • Allie Davis:

    We have little chairs that pull out here, as well as a math cabinet.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You have to stay very organized.

  • Allie Davis:

    Yes, everything has a space.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The bus was a labor of love for Alexa Garrido and Rany Elissa, a husband-and-wife team who first spent years building a tutoring business. They worked in over a dozen school districts across Colorado, but often struggled to find space.

  • Alexa Garrido:

    The libraries were always full. The rec centers were not spaces we could use. So, because we were doing that, we had decided, well, we will make it mobile

  • Amna Nawaz:

    They saw a need, they say, to offer education early in a child's life to address education gaps they were trying to close later in middle or high school.

  • Rany Elissa:

    We're looking for communities that have a need. So it's going to be generally your lower-income areas or areas that do not have access to preschool.

    And also, if cost or transportation is a barrier to them, this is where we work with the communities and schools. We can identify those areas.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Using their own money, and some profits from their tutoring business, they bought the bus at auction, gutted it, and outfitted it with all the amenities of a modern classroom, a smartboard, air conditioning, and a bathroom.

    But they needed support from the city and permits to park the bus. They found both with the help of Daniel Dick, the mayor of neighboring Federal Heights, Colorado.

  • Daniel Dick:

    It is a city with great difficulties, limited opportunity for employment. Many of them have language issues. So we start with the difficult, and have to figure out ways to raise that level.

    And the best way to do it is to provide for a better future for our children. It's critical, because it will make the entire difference in whether they're successful or if they will fall through the cracks.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Data actually, here in Adams County, many communities live in so-called child care deserts. That's places where the number of preschool-age children far exceeds the number of available child care slots.

    Studies are mixed on whether preschool gives a lasting academic edge. But reliable child care provides benefits that extend beyond tests and report cards.

  • Katie Hamm:

    A lot of that traces back to something we call executive functioning.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Katie Hamm is the vice president of early childhood policy at the Center for American Progress.

  • Katie Hamm:

    Children are learning really critical socio-emotional skills during this time, and that includes things like self-regulation, learning what behaviors are appropriate.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ashley Parke says preschool has already made a difference in how Clinton navigates the world.

  • Ashley Parke:

    He's learning to use his voice, like, don't do that, I don't like that, or can we play, or just learning, hey, what's your name? Do you want to be my friend? Like, kids don't know those things. And he's learning a lot of the social stuff here.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Experts like Hamm agree the gold standard is a full day of preschool, longer than the half-day sessions kids attend on the bus.

  • Katie Hamm:

    If we want preschool to realize its full potential, we need to invest in those programs that are high-quality and full-day. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't start somewhere.

    If you have communities that are isolated, that aren't receiving any type of preschool, starting a part-day program is certainly a value add.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In the afternoons, the bus parks in a second location, for another session with eight more children. The older kids will go on to kindergarten in the fall.

    The younger ones will return for another year of preschool on wheels.

    Meanwhile, Rany Elissa and Alexa Garrido have purchased a second bus, which they hope to roll out in metro Denver before the next school year.

  • Alexa Garrido:

    We have got parents that have conversations with us about how great it was, right, the experience, to have what they had here, and be able to go to kindergarten, but also to be able to come back to us for support for their kids if they still need it in the elementary schools.

    Our hope is we can see them as they grow, right, for however long that they're here in the communities, that we will be able to be a part of their life, and that they really want to come back.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz in Adams County, Colorado.

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