Read to be Ready summer camp children are pictured in front of the book bus along with the individuals who helped bring the project to life during the mobile literacy unit’s launch event at Unicoi County Middle School on June 6. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

Children in the Unicoi County School System now have more opportunities to continue learning over the summer months thanks to the book bus, a mobile literacy unit that will give children the opportunity to socialize, hear stories, check out books and enjoy a lunch.

In the June 5 Unicoi County Board of Education meeting, the board heard an update on the aptly-named Aspire Book Bus from Jenifer Lingerfelt, elementary curriculum supervisor and former kindergarten teacher who led the efforts to make the book bus become a reality.

“I want to really brag on Mrs. Lingerfelt and a lot of folks played a large part in this,” John English, director of schools said about the book bus. “I can tell you firsthand, watching her take this from the very beginning with her wheels turning and her mind turning on the vision she had for it, it’s just been amazing. I think about the opportunity our kids are going to have this summer because of her work and the work of others; it makes me really proud.”

From her experience in the school system, Lingerfelt has seen firsthand the importance of students remaining avid readers and staying enthusiastic about learning during those summer months when they are away from the classroom.

“We know that access to books over the summer is critical for kids and in research it’s known as the ‘summer slide’ and it’s just a time in the year where kids are away from books sometimes unless they’re visiting libraries,” she said. “This bus is all about a lot of people coming together to help the kids.”

Last July, Lingerfelt met with Abby Graves, community engagement director for the Governor’s Books from Birth Foundation and Lottie Ryans, director of Workforce Initiatives for the First Tennessee Development District, to discuss partnerships and seed money to start developing the mobile literacy unit.

“Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) donated $5,000 for our start-up fund and the Governor’s Books from Birth Foundation and the First Tennessee Development District (FTDD) partnered with Unicoi County Schools to write the grant,” Lingerfelt said.

After the Governor’s Books from Birth Foundation, an early literacy non-profit based in Nashville, received the grant, they approached Unicoi County to see if the school system would be interested in coming up with a way to reach children during the summer and keep them engaged with reading and learning.

“They have taken this idea and ran with it and made it something amazing,” Graves said. “It’s so much more than what I ever dreamed it would be.”

Ryan said that one of her favorite parts about the book bus is seeing the excitement and creativity members of the local school system have brought to the program.

“Jenifer and the team here have done a phenomenal job,” said Ryans, whose focus is on workforce and literacy. “There are so many positive benefits to having this program in place. We know that being able to enhance literacy skills will improve their reading which will improve graduation rates, which will improve employment rates.”

To make the bus, which is filled with the newest technology to assist children in their learning, Tommy Clouse, transportation supervisor for Unicoi County Schools, found a decommissioned school bus they could convert.

“He found us a big, beautiful bus and the maintenance department retrofitted the bus,” Lingerfelt said. “They pulled out all of the seats and then added the book shelving and the furniture, it’s all custom built.”

Tim Ledford with the transportation department, along with Herman Tipton and Norman Hardin from the maintenance department, all donated their time and energy into the bus’s transformation.

“They brought it to life,” Lingerfelt said. “Then we have our technology department under the direction of Bruce Tolley, his team are the ones who put the technology aspects on the bus, so we have Wifi, computers, a smart TV and a sound system.”

The bus already has 12 planned stops in July, where children can enjoy a storytime and lunch, and also check out award-winning books off of the “Read to Be Ready” suggested book list. Community book drives at Food Lion, Clinchfield Federal Credit Union and the local library will allow people to donate books that will then be used as giveaway books for the children.

“The Read to be Ready Summer Camp teachers will work the 12 stops, but we’re also partnering with our local Imagination Library and many of the retired teachers are in that organization, so we’re hoping that they will work some of those stops with us,” Lingerfelt said. “We have some of our favorite teachers from when we were growing up that made a big impact on all of our lives and we would just like to reconnect with them.”

In June, Lingerfelt said they will be taking the bus to several “sneak peek” locations and also plans to work with RISE Erwin young professionals group to work some of the Saturday events they have planned.

“Taking the bus out and seeing the kids get on the bus is by far one of the most fun things I’ve done this year,” she said.

Along with the Governor’s Books from Birth Foundation, FTDD and ARC, other partners who have supported the development of the bus include: Workforce & Literacy Initiatives, Second Harvest, Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce Leadership Team, Unicoi County Public Library, Clinchfield Federal Credit Union, Unicoi County Read to Be Ready Summer Camp, Unicoi County Volunteer PreK Program, the Erwin Monday Club and the Unicoi County Imagination Library.

The book bus’s first few stops next month will be on July 2 at Whispering Meadows at 10:30 a.m. and Unicoi Elementary at noon. On July 3, the bus will be at the YMCA at 9:45 a.m, Railroad Street at 11 a.m. and Rock Creek Elementary at 12:15 p.m. On July 6, it will be at the former Flag Pond school at 10:30 a.m. and Evergreen Church at noon.

To stay updated on the Aspire Book Bus stops, visit unicoicountyschools.com.

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In other business during the Unicoi County Board of Education meeting, the board unanimously approved the following on their consent agenda:

• Donations of $20, $65, and $1,018.90 from Nuclear Fuel Service employees for Adopt-A-School Program;

• HOSA to Dallas on June 25 to July 2, 2018, for HOSA International Conference;

• Unicoi County High School 2018 golf schedule and 2018 girls soccer schedule;

• An amendment of $126,575 to the 2018-19 General Purpose Budget for life insurance, medical insurance, dental insurance and instructional supplies and materials.