C.O.W. Helps Kids Catch Up
"The COW bus is here!"
For preschoolers in some Las Vegas neighborhoods, the sight of the big white bus with black splotches like those on a Holstein cow brings cheers. You would think the ice cream truck had arrived. But these children are not waiting in line for treats. They are scrambling to step aboard to their classroom. Carpeted and furnished with fold-away tables and a bathroom with running water, the air conditioned bus is designed to help the children learn in a comfortable setting close to home.
The bus is the most visible manifestation of Classroom on Wheels, a non-profit agency that has delivered early education to more than 2,000 children since 1992. The program services 23 neighborhoods in Clark County, Nevada by bringing classrooms and teachers students, ages 3 to 5, allowing them to master basic skills before entering elementary school.
The Red Crayon
COW founder Louise Helton says she began looking for ways to help youngsters without access to preschool about 18 years ago. At the time, she was a stay-at-home mother of two who sometimes helped out in her kids' classrooms. She remembers the day she was helping out in her daughter Adriann's first-grade classroom.
"I was volunteering one day in 1987," Helton recalls. "The teacher, Mrs. Ford, gave the children a coloring assignment." The task was to color in a house, giving it yellow walls, a blue roof and a red chimney. A little girl raised her hand. "She asked, 'Mrs. Helton, which one is the red crayon?'"
Helton was stunned that a first-grader wouldn't know her colors. But the teacher said it wasn't unusual. "There are several others who are unprepared to be in the classroom," Ford told her. "You'd be surprised how many do not know their colors, shapes or letters."
In fact, eight percent of first graders in the Clark County school district were in the same boat, Helton learned. Because kindergarten was not required in the state of Nevada, many children were entering school ill-prepared. To Helton, it seemed like those children were being set up to fail. (In 1997, Nevada passed a law making kindergarten obligatory. Helton was an active advocate for the change.)
Then she came across an article in Guideposts Magazine about a Tennessee teacher who was addressing a similar problem, but in a rural setting. The teacher renovated an old school bus into a mobile classroom and took it into Tennessee's rural areas. Helton thought the same idea could work to address the same issue for urban kids in disadvantaged neighborhoods.
"I wanted to make learning opportunities more widely available to children," Helton says.
Getting the Bus Rolling
Helton began by making calls to the school district. They liked the idea, but didn't come on board right away. Then, she mentioned the concept to her friend Liliam Hickey, who was then newly elected to the State Department of Education.
Helton remembers Hickey's reaction: "Fantastic!" Hickey said. "Would you be willing to give a presentation?" Helton agreed, and in January of 1991 she spoke about her idea to the board of education and other groups, gathering support from juvenile justice and drug abuse prevention programs and the state's Department of Alternative Education. She got some help looking for funding sources and writing grants.
As Helton wrote meeting dates and times on her day planner, she found herself repeatedly cramming the words Classroom on Wheels into the planner's small squares. She began to shorten it to C.O.W... and that was the genesis of the buses' black-and-white paint scheme. Each bus has a different pattern of splotches, so kids can recognize their own classroom.
As the months passed and word spread about the program, Helton began to win grants and bring in private donations. The local United Way and Junior League and the housing authority were all contributors.
When the first two buses were purchased, they were taken to the Nevada State prisons where prisoners worked on renovating them, turning them into self-contained classrooms. They installed electrical wiring and plumbing. Each bus was equipped with activity centers where the children would learn colors, numbers, letters and shapes.
Many prisoners donated their time with no pay. A prison administrator, Pete Thompson, oversaw the work and said some of the men told him that while they could not be home helping their own children get ready for school, perhaps one of their own children would benefit from the program. It was, he said, a way for them to give their children something they needed.
By October of 1992, the first COW bus was on the road. With help from the United Way, the second bus was launched in February of 1993.
At first, to get the word out, Helton and her staff went door-to-door through the neighborhoods, passing out fliers. The fliers told when the buses would be coming and how the parents could register their children. Week by week, more parents began signing up.
In 1993, Angela Pernatozzi was hired as the program's executive director. When she first heard about the position, the idea of a mobile classroom piqued Pernatozzi's interest. She shared Helton's dream of addressing the needs of at-risk preschool children.
"What better goal was there than to have success in school and to empower the families to provide a nurturing environment and a healthy lifestyle?" Pernatozzi says.
"Of course we began to get the COW jokes from our supporters," Pernatozzi says. "We still do. We are known as the Moooovers and Shakers in the community. You have an udderly wonderful program, some say. If a donation is accompanied by a cow joke, that's fine with me."
The Herd Grows Larger
In 1996, the program added a Clinic on Wheels, offering immunizations, as well as free medical and dental screenings.
Then came Computer on Wheels, designed for parents who want to learn computer skills while their children are in class.
As a testament to the C.O.W. program, Helton says, kindergarten teachers have told her over the years that they can tell which students have been part of the program from the moment they enter the class. They are more confident and better prepared. Many are top readers and follow-up reports show that these same children in high school have made the honor roll and are looking forward to college.
Today, there are 20 buses that travel to five counties in the state. Students meet for 2 1/2 hours a day, twice a week. There is a waiting list to sign up.
From its original staff of one paid teacher and a flock of volunteers from the Boys and Girls Club, the program has grown to 32 full-time and two part-time saff members and an annual overall budget of $1.9 million.
The COW staff is still talking about new ways to meet the needs of children. A science lab on wheels is in the planning stages. Helton is delighted by the program's success and future possibilities. "It's amazing to think that it all started in a first grade classroom with a simple question from a little girl who did not know her colors," she says.
Shari L. Cohen is a freelance writer based in California.