By Bryan Stevens
Although it’s summer vacation for Unicoi County students, the school system is inviting kids to get back on the bus to take part in an exciting and educational program known as the ASPIRE Book Bus.
According to Jenifer Lingerfelt, elementary curriculum and instruction supervisor for Unicoi County Schools, research shows that students who are not reading over the summer can lose two to three months of reading proficiency.
“This is often referred to as the ‘summer slide,’” Lingerfelt explained. “Reading four to six books has the potential to stop or even reverse the summer slide.”
In the fall of 2017, Unicoi County Schools partnered with the Governor’s Early Literacy Foundation to launch a Book Bus Program providing families the opportunity to establish literacy routines in the summer months when historically there are fewer existing school programs in operation.
“By bringing mobile libraries directly to Tennessee neighborhoods, we want to meet kids where they are, where they play, and where they live, with the resources they need to continue reading and learning outside of the classroom,” said James Pond, GELF president.
A typical stop is 45 minutes, although some stops may run slightly longer or shorter.
As children arrive they will have the opportunity to listen to a story as they eat a meal provided by Unicoi Schools.
They can also check out a book, just as they would at their school or the public library.
“We have stocked the bus with high-quality books that our kids love,” Lingerfelt said. “We consulted our school librarians for popular series, authors and books students are interested in.
The ASPIRE bus is equipped with electricity and technology.
“Students can listen to stories online read by storytellers around the world or choose to write at a table retrofitted with the original bus seating and a hand-crafted table made by our very own Herman Tipton,” Lingerfelt said.
Lingerfelt added that the bus offers comfortable seating.
“Kids can gather alongside a parent, grandparent, friend, sibling or teacher to share a book together,” she noted.
“Before leaving, every child can choose a ‘forever book’ to take home and keep,” Lingerfelt said. “These books have been donated through former book drives and from various individuals and community organizations.”
ASPIRE has been loved in the community since 2018, according to Lingerfelt.
“We’ve given away thousands of books and meals,” she added.
“During the summer of 2020 due to COVID, we posted daily stories read by Unicoi County teachers on our ASPIRE Book Bus Facebook page,” Lingerfelt said. “We are so happy to be able to be on the move again!
Lingerfelt said that the school system is grateful to community partners who allow the bus to stop along its routes.
“We are excited to add the Little League and Limestone Cove Community Center this summer,” she said. “We live in such a beautiful area.The view of the mountains in Limestone Cove is breathtaking. It is also such a joy to visit the Erwin Housing Authority and Whispering Meadows each summer.”
Lingerfelt said that students are often excited to see a former teacher, but the program is also a treat for little ones who love to see the big blue bus pull into a stop.
Evergreen Freewill Baptist Church allows the bus to park alongside their outdoor pavilion.
“That is a nice, cool stop on a hot summer day,” she said.
Scott’s Market in Unicoi has been a longtime partner, according to Lingerfelt.
Lingerfelt noted that participants at the Scott’s Market stop have sometimes been treated with yummy ice cream.
“Some families plan to stop by the market, and then visit the book bus,” she said. “It is a very fun place to visit.”
The YMCA is one of the larger stops.
“We often have retired teachers join us there,” Lingerfelt said. “It is so nice to see the continued commitment of former educators and we are blessed with so many.”
Lingerfelt said that Denise Rose, who is also the Imagination Library Coordinator, is really a staple part of the Book Bus program.
“She and Kathy Eunson, also a retired teacher, have helped for years sorting through donated books that will become a cherished ‘forever book’ for a child who visits,” Lingerfelt said. “Their support is so appreciated.”
The bus also makes stop at the elementary schools.
“The principals and teachers have always been so wonderful joining us throughout the summer,” Lingerfelt said. “Sometimes a principal serves as a guest reader and the students always enjoy that very much.”
Lingerfelt said many community partners support ASPIRE.
“We often attend RISE Erwin events,” she noted. “This has allowed us a broader community engagement. Clinchfield Federal Credit, Food Lion, the Chamber of Commerce, the Unicoi County Public Library, the local Imagination Library and the Monday Club have all donated time, books or partnered on events or activities planned.”
In addition, she said ASPIRE will usually show up at the farmer markets in Erwin several evenings.
“We also have several pop-up events that arise each summer,” Lingerfelt said. “This year we are participating in the Unicoi County Public Library’s end-of-summer day. From time to time we’ve received generous donations from individuals from within the community who have helped purchase the beautiful books you see on the bus.”
In essence, Lingerfelt said that ASPIRE really remains a community investment shared by Unicoi Schools.
The program is focused on early literacy but through an intergenerational approach, according to Lingerfelt.
“We want books in the hands of kids from toddlers to college-bound,” she said. “Knowing the research shows the value of having books in kids’ hands makes that a big goal. But we love that our community comes around our children to support them through experiences like the Book Bus.”
Based on her own observation, Lingerfelt said that adults seem to enjoy the bus as much as the students.
“ASPIRE is intentionally designed to serve as a gathering for people of all ages,” she said. “There is seating and areas for learning that are adult-size and very comfortable so adults can gather with books alongside children.”
She shared that the bus staff recently noticed a dad reading a motorcycle magazine as his little ones explored the bus.
“That is really a cool thing about the whole experience,” she said.
Families can follow the ASPIRE BOOK BUS program and the summer schedule on the Unicoi County Schools ASPIRE Book Bus Facebook page.
“Sharon Ritchie Slagle helped dream the book bus into a beautiful experience it is for young children and their families,” Lingerfelt said. “She helped decorate the interior and filled it with positive messages you see when you enter the bus.”
In addition, Slagle also helped name ASPIRE.
“That special name carries the message that children can aspire to be all they choose to be,” Lingerfelt explained.
She noted that “aspire to inspire” is a catchphrase that she and colleagues like to use.
“It reminds us of Sharon who was and remains an inspiration to all who knew her,” Lingerfelt said. “Each summer Ms. Sharon volunteered her time and filled young hearts with so much positivity. This summer as ASPIRE rolls we do so in honor of Sharon and her love for young children.”
The bus does not roll, however, without the assistance of a variety of employees of Unicoi County Schools.
“Unicoi County is blessed with some of the best teachers and several of them have signed on to work the Book Bus this Summer,” Lingerfelt said. “Keri Bogart and Candy Rice will be working our Unicoi route. That will make present and future Unicoi Pirates very happy!
“Kelly Pate and Debbie Hatcher are working the Erwin route in June,” Lingerfelt continued. “They are a loved dynamic duo from Rock Creek Elementary.”
The crews shuffle a bit in July.
“Lauren Trivette and Jennifer McCloud are energetic, fun Love Chapel teachers working Erwin stops in July,” Lingerfelt said.
“April Hawkins, Tanya Laughren and Jennifer Hodges will be working our pop-up events and also at the Famers Market,” she added. “They serve in our PreK program. Kids and families alike will love interacting with them.”
Lingerfelt also noted that Myriah Woodby is driving the bus this summer and Tracy Foster is preparing the meals.
“We adore both of these ladies,” Lingerfelt said. “This entire team is just a really child-focused group of people that will bring a lot of warmth and fun to each stop.”
Lingerfelt also noted that there is a huge behind-the-scenes team made up of maintenance, transportation, food service and technology teams.
“I’m very thankful for their support each summer,” she said.
On Tuesdays in June and July, the ASPIRE Book Bus Summer Tour will stop at Unicoi Elementary at 9 a.m., Scott’s Market at 10 a.m., Limestone Cove Community Center at 11 a.m., Whispering Meadows Apartments at noon and at the Unicoi County Family YMCA at 1 p.m.
On Thursdays in June and July, the ASPIRE Book Bus Summer Tour will stop at Temple Hill Elementary at 9 a.m., Erwin Housing Authority at 10 a.m., Evergreen Freewill Baptist Church at 11 a.m., the Unicoi County Little League Field at noon and Rock Creek Elementary at 1 p.m.
For more information, follow Unicoi County Schools ASPIRE Book Bus on Facebook or visit www.unicoischools.com.