Babes on the Bus: Wind River takes preschool to students

The mobile preschool pulls up to the door of each family’s home. But Michelle Carr, the teacher, does not go inside. Families come to the bus, which remains a neutral territory. Families leave home to visit the classroom, even if it is only yards away instead of miles. (Sean Ryan/WyoFile — click to expand)
By Ron Feemster
May 28, 2013

Michelle Carr kneels on the floor and coos words of encouragement to Cordelle Wood, a toddler who is slapping toy cars onto a wooden track and watching them plummet through a series of switchbacks to the carpeted floor.

Michelle Carr gets down to  Cordelle Wood’s level in the back of the Little Cougars Preschool bus. Cordelle and Carr were rolling cars down an Educo Switchback Racetrack.™ Like any good toy, the track can become many different objects in the child’s mind. Here Cordelle is playing with the magnetic horse he took off the easel. (Sean Ryan/WyoFile — click to expand)
Michelle Carr gets down to  Cordelle Wood’s level in the back of the Little Cougars Preschool bus. Cordelle and Carr were rolling cars down an Educo Switchback Racetrack.™ Like any good toy, the track can become many different objects in the child’s mind. Here Cordelle is playing with the magnetic horse he took off the easel. (Sean Ryan/WyoFile — click to expand)

“Go blue car, Cordelle. Look the blue car is stuck. The blue car, Cordelle? Can you fix it, Cordelle? There you go.”

It’s playtime for Cordelle, a two-and-a-half-year-old who lives with his mother, grandfather and aunt on a 10-acre parcel of land up a series of dirt roads 15 miles outside Pavillion, Wyo. And it’s fun for Carr. But the exercise is also serious diagnostic and educational work for the teacher. And an intense workout of Cordelle’s fine motor skills and vocabulary.

Carr, 43, who has taught preschool, elementary and special education, designed a classroom in the back of a school bus to bring preschool to children like Cordelle, who would probably not otherwise attend school before kindergarten.

Cordelle’s mother, April Wood, 23, who works weekends at a fast-food restaurant in Riverton, does not have a driver’s license and did not grow up in Fremont County. Her roots are in Casper, but after her husband went to prison, Wood bounced around from one low-income housing complex to another before winding up at a sister’s apartment in Casper and then with her father and stepmother.

Wood is safe there, and her stepmother can watch Cordelle when she goes to work. But until she learns to drive and acquires a vehicle — difficult to do on less than 20 hours a week of minimum-wage work — she and Cordelle spend most of their time away from other parents and small children, not to mention far from school.

“I’m looking for low-income housing in Riverton,” Wood said. “But it’s not working.”

Carr and Diana Clapp, superintendent of Fremont School District 6, developed a mobile preschool for children like Cordelle, who are often isolated and slow to develop language skills in the absence of preschool.

Dale Fillin, 44, is Michelle Carr’s ideal of an engaged parent. He talks to his daughter, Devyn, all day long. Legally blind after a stroke in his eyes, the stay-at-home dad’s constant interaction with Devyn helped her advance beyond the typical 2-year-old’s language skills. (Sean Ryan/WyoFile — click to expand)

The district covers 1,300 square miles, one of the largest in Wyoming, and enrolls only 400 students from pre-K to 12th grade. The district doesn’t have a Head Start program or even a licensed daycare center within its borders, Clapp said. If children were going to be ready for kindergarten, the district would have to reach out.

Clapp says the idea for the bus took time to develop. The first hint of a mobile facility came at an annual Title 1 meeting with parents and staff, when the district sought input for its federal grant application to reach impoverished students. One of the problems they addressed was the fact that students, many of them Native Americans, were not coming to summer school even though they needed the credits to stay on track.

“A comment was made, what if we could get to them,” Clapp said. “What if we had an RV? What if we had a place to go and deliver services to them?”

In the course of the discussion, Clapp was reminded of the Native experience with public education, which was not always positive. The Wind River tribes remember children being taken from families to enter boarding school. And although the district wants Natives to trust them, Clapp needed to respect the historical attitudes. If families were afraid to send the children to school, something like an RV, she thought, might be a neutral ground.

“And then came the issue of early childhood and such a big need,” Clapp said. “In this age of accountability, there is intense pressure on teachers to have children performing at proficiency levels.”

Although Clapp was happy to embrace the challenge of high standards, she knew that many children entered kindergarten unprepared. Most critical were the deficiencies in language. She asked Carr to design a curriculum — and a mobile classroom.

The district bought back one of its own 16-passenger school buses after the lease ran out, painted it purple (the Wind River color), gutted it, and built a classroom inside. Since March, Carr has been strapping herself into the only adult-sized seat in the back of the bus every Thursday to take preschool to the students.

Michelle Carr holds 7-month-old Bridget’s attention with Sophie the giraffe. Bridget hones her receptive language skills and exercises her largest muscles as she stretches to reach Sophie. Bus driver Mary Stevens helps out with some of the children. (Sean Ryan/WyoFile — click to expand)

Carr and her driver pull up to the family home, but they do not go inside. The school comes to the children, but the children also come to the school.

“Families, a lot of times, are really nervous about an official coming into their home,” Carr said. “The bus is a classroom on wheels. It’s a neutral territory. The family and children come right on the bus. I think people feel more open, more able to be themselves. They’re not worried about feeling judged, if perchance they just might have a couple crates to sit on in their house.”

The district plans twice-a-week service beginning in the fall, and hopes to expand the program to full time — four days a week in this district — as more funding becomes available.

Teaching language on the bus

“When I first saw Cordelle, he wasn’t interacting with the toys and wasn’t speaking a whole lot,” Carr said. In fact, on her first visit, Carr and Cordelle lay together on their stomachs and looked out the back window of the bus at the goats that Wood’s sister raises. “That’s where he was. Just over the course of a month, maybe a month and a half, he has changed so much. His language today was amazing,” Carr said. “He said at least a dozen words.”

Carr is quick to point out that the Woods receive services from an early intervention service in Fort Washakie, and that April Wood has made great efforts to teach Cordelle things that Carr shows her. Last Thursday, Carr left Wood with materials to read and act out with Cordelle, and a bedtime story that would reinforce the active lesson.

To a casual observer, Carr might appear to be playing with the children. But behind the cooing and cajoling, however comforting, is a calculated effort to teach language without ever explaining a word of the process in language. She says the early childhood education community calls this gradual, methodical build-up of language skills “scaffolding.”

“You see a child, for example, playing and you see what they’re looking at,” Carr said. “Let’s say the car. They don’t have the language quite yet, so I will model that, I will scaffold them by saying, “See the red car.” Or even “Car!”

As the lesson goes on, Carr will look for opportunities to repeat and reinforce the word. “You play a little more and you repeat it again and again and you are increasing their language,” Carr said. “You have to watch them very carefully to see. It can be very slight.”

Carr is always down on her hands and knees, sometimes on her belly with an infant. “Oh my goodness, I wear the knees out of my pants on this job,” she said, “because I’m on the floor all the time. I sit on the floor to teach. I do not sit on an adult-sized chair.”

When she is down on the child’s level, she can see the little things that cue her next lesson. She is always watching their reactions, ready to jump in with the next word.

Cordelle Wood’s fascination with a new toy translated to a big jump in active language: “He said at least a dozen words.” Carr does not sit in a chair when she works. To catch the nuances of children’s behavior, she spends lots of time at their level, usually on her knees. (Sean Ryan/WyoFile — click to expand)

“They just looked over at something,” she said. “I say ‘Oooh, would you like to see this giraffe?’ They will show you with their eyes and their body language. That’s how they’re communicating.”

In most cases, Carr works hard to pass the baton to the parents. Many, although not all of the clients of the Little Cougars Preschool bus, are poor. Some lack education. But all of them can succeed in teaching their children if they become responsive parents, Carr says.

“Even if a family only owned three books,” Carr said. “Read those same three books over and over again. You can learn a lot about language that way.”

Money is not as important as toys. Any toys.

“You can make toys,” Carr said. “Make toys out of an empty liter bottle. You clean it out, put beans in it and tape it up. An infant can chase after that. You just need a parent who’s responsive and involved with the child and spends time with them.”

One of those engaged parents is Dale Fillin, 44, a disabled, stay-at-home dad who used to work as a tool pusher on an oil rig. He spends the whole day every day with Devyn, his 2-year-old daughter.

Fillin is legally blind after suffering a stroke in his eyes, but he can see well enough to take Devyn around their trailer home and chat with her about the chickens and ducks. He saddles up her horse, mounts his own and leads her on horse rides.

Devyn is a cheerful, outgoing child who Carr says is talking at a level beyond her two years.

“You can tell that people talk to her all the time,” Carr said. “That’s the key. Talking about everything. ‘There’s the wall. Here, you’re going to lay on the floor. Look at the window, look outside.’”

Sometimes, Carr talks to parents, even as she talks to infants who can’t yet talk back.

Bridget is 7 months old. She is the daughter of Doug Redding, 43, a part-time dishwasher at the Riverton airport. He works the job two days a week and his fiancé, Nancy Tanner, works it the other five. One of them is always home with Bridget.

When the bus pulls up to the trailer that Redding and Tanner rent on Eight Mile Road, near Blue Shale, the boundary line of the school district, Carr and Mary Stevens, the bus driver, roll out a brightly colored blanket on the floor and lie down. Carr gets Bridget’s attention with Sophie, the giraffe, a toy that almost every child loves.

As Bridget strains and stretches to get to Sophie, Carr explains to Redding how the child is using the large muscles of her back and growing stronger and more flexible. All the while, she keeps up a steady patter with Bridget, always watching her eyes.

Among the most important things with the very small children are keeping their attention, interacting with the child and reinforcing their responses. And then repeating it over and over again.

“If good positive activities are not repeated,” Carr says, “learning is not going to be permanent.”

This interaction needs to be personal, Carr says. “Television and other ‘screen’ experiences do more harm than good early in life.

“I recommend no screen time from birth to two years old,” Carr says. “And even after that, only shows where the scene doesn’t change too fast.”

In the course of a Thursday, Carr may see as many as eight or 10 children, or as few as six. But each lesson is intense. Many of the families will be lucky to get one visit a month. The limiting factor is money for staff.

Diana Clapp, the superintendent, estimates that the bus cost about $8,000 to purchase, paint, and outfit with furnishings and toys. It sits in the bus barn every day but Thursday now. All of the money for the Little Cougars Preschool comes from the federal government and local sources. The state of Wyoming does not contribute funds for preschool.

State money for preschool?

Noting the poverty rate in the district and the number of families without transportation — or without the money to spend on fuel for a vehicle — Jim Rose, Interim Director of the Department of Education, sees the mobile preschool as a welcome innovation.

2-year-old Devyn Fillin is focused on Michelle Carr, who works to catch the child’s every verbal and non-verbal cue. The keys to learning are responding to the child, and repeating and reinforcing the lesson. (Sean Ryan/WyoFile — click to expand)

“Diana is a visionary in some respects in what she is doing in Wind River,” said Rose. “This is an initiative that is unique.”

The problem the bus is meant to address is anything but unique, however. In Albin, a teacher is reaching out into the community to help preschoolers get ready for kindergarten. And in many districts, the problem is there but hard to track.

“There is no systematic reporting [on early childhood educational outcomes],” Rose said, “because we don’t have a system.”

At the June 4 meeting of the Labor, Health and Social Services Interim Committee in Casper, Rose will ask for a comprehensive study of how the departments of education, family services and health can work together to better prepare children to start school.

“There is a mutual recognition that we are not getting the job done,” Rose said. “There is not enough coordination and communication between departments.” And arguably, there is not enough money in the preschool budget. “Wyoming is one of a handful of states that put no state money into preschool education,” Rose said.

What money there is for preschool comes from local taxpayers, TANF, Head Start and the Child Development Centers, non-profits that receive some funding from the federal special education budget.

“We would be asking for a report in a matter of months, to see if it is in the state’s interest to bring the state into early childhood education,” Rose said. “Money invested in educating 3 and 4-year-olds pays us back many-fold. Ultimately, it saves many times the investment in terms of avoiding remediation.”

Carr, who has seen the ill-prepared preschoolers in her special education courses when they get older, sees the same problem and the same solution.

“What we need to do is we need to put the dollars in early education,” she said. “We have ample research showing what goes on from birth to age 3 — birth to age 5 before they enter school. That’s when we need to be teaching and reaching them with the language and the learning and preparing them for school. But we’re ignoring that set, and then these kids are coming to school not ready to learn. I believe that we would have much, much, much less spent in remediation if we would just educate and bring them in ready to learn.”

Wind River’s Little Cougars Preschool will go on in the fall, but Carr will not be the teacher. Her husband is moving to a new job as a principal in the Niobrara school district. She expects to be teaching there, perhaps in special education again.

She teared up when she talked about leaving the preschool bus. “I want it to continue,” she said. “I want it to grow. I want someone who comes in who is better than me who will take it further.”

— Ron Feemster covers the Wind River Indian Reservation for WyoFile in addition to his duties as a general reporter. Feemster was a Visiting Professor of Journalism at the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media in Bangalore, India, and previously taught journalism at Northwest College in Powell. He has reported for The New York Times, Associated Press, Newsday, NPR and others. Contact Ron at

— Sean Ryan is a freelance photographer based in Thermopolis, Wyo. His work has appeared in the Arizona Republic, the Boston Globe, the Detroit Free Press, the Flint Journal and Yahoo Sports.

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