Gus the Bus & the Sunshine Bus 

Solution Story from Aspen Community Foundation and Garfield School District Re-2

A project of the Aspen Community Foundation and the Garfield School District Re-2, Gus the Bus and the Sunshine Bus are mobile preschool buses that serve children and their families who otherwise would not have access to early childhood education and other resources provided. Before the program was implemented in 2012, the Aspen Community Foundation was funding projects related to early childhood and education, focusing on the goal of ensuring that all pre-k children in their service area were ready for school and that the schools and parents had the resources needed. At the same time, the Garfield School District Re-2 was working on a mobile book program to provide resources in low-income areas of their community. As they were developing and implementing the mobile book program, the continual feedback was that there was a greater need for early childhood education and literacy services. Due to this feedback, the school district and Aspen Community Foundation decided to look for deeper solutions together. They sought to figure out exactly where the service gaps were occurring, and what would be the best strategy to address them.

Elementary school boy smiling from the steps of the school bus.

Garfield Re-2 and the Aspen Community Foundation gathered partners across the community to come up with solutions: the school district, government agencies, parents, teachers, and community organizations all worked together to determine what collective impact they could make to meet these community needs. This planning led to the discovery of mobile program models, and eventually to the conceptualization of Gus the Bus in 2012. After initial implementation of Gus the Bus, they realized that one bus wasn’t enough to meet the needs of families in their service area, and in 2013 added the Sunshine Bus to serve additional neighborhoods.

Funds were invested from the Aspen Community Foundation, and the project was a major investment for the organization to undertake. The school district was not able to contribute capital (though they contribute in-kind services, such as bus mechanics) and the project has been largely funded by the foundation since 2012. Early investments in the project included research on community needs, infrastructure, licensure, and long-term planning. They continue to invest in fundraising efforts, and have been able to work with community businesses and donors to contribute to the program.

However, this support is limited due to the lack of businesses and potential donors in the area.

In addition to the services provided by the school buses, the mobile school program focuses heavily on parent engagement. They hold regular parent engagement events in the evenings, and parents are also regularly asked for input and feedback. Last year, the program added a home visitation service for families. For this service, they follow a parent engagement model that is focused on getting to know the parents and their child and forming a connection first and foremost, rather than following a more instructional approach. Overall, this has been very successful: of the 120 families in their program, 90 have participated in home visitation. Lastly, program organizers have also recently started a mom’s group for mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and other caregivers to have a chance to talk openly about parenting, their children, and challenges they face. This group then led to an additional service: through these discussions, program managers became aware of the fact that many families were interested in learning English. The following year, they collaborated with the local community colleges to offer free, online English classes to parents in the community.

One of the most significant lessons learned was to listen to families, see them as equals in the program, and not to force parent/caregiver participation. Initially, parents with children involved in the program were required to attend the parent engagement evenings, and sometimes contribute snacks for all participants. However, this proved to be less than effective in encouraging real engagement and garnering support from families. Many parents work and/or live outside of the community, and may not be able to attend evening events. Purchasing snacks can be a challenge due to financial constraints.

Staff realized that they need to go where parents are, invite them to get involved at whatever level makes sense for them, and see them as equals and as partners. Now, parents are invited to participate rather than required, and program managers make sure to respect parents’ knowledge and experiences. They also invite all parents to participate on the bus as often as they would like, and generally maintain an open-door policy. These family engagement strategies overall have played a significant role in the success of the program. The home visitation program, informal gatherings and celebrations, and other activities have built trust with families and opened new pathways of connection.

The program has demonstrated success over the past six years. Parents report greater knowledge of child development and other topics that are discussed during educational events, such as safety, child sexual abuse prevention, and more. More and more families are returning every year, and regular assessments have shown that the children in the program are improving in the areas of social-emotional development, literacy, language, cognition, and more. Children are also often more confident and social after participating. The program has built a stronger community overall, with parents stepping up to help each other during difficult times. Lastly, their program has been steadily building a deeper community awareness of the importance of education and early childhood development.

Advice on Replication

The Aspen Community Foundation recommends that organizations first conduct a needs assessment and invest in the front-end research necessary to ensure that these services are what is most needed in the community. A preschool-on-wheels may not be necessary in all communities. For organizations who are past the research phase, they recommend first and foremost to making a plan for continued funding, as mobile education programs are generally large investments with high funding needs. They also recommend investing in being licensed providers, establishing strong program partnerships, continually taking the time to listen to families and ask for feedback, and being flexible and willing to change with the environment as needed.

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