How one school district is closing the equity gap with a school bus and a card table

Pass or Fail

HUTTO, Texas (KXAN) — Arianna Gonzalez stands on the curb outside her Central Texas home next to a school bus.

“I’m ready to get to go on the bus because I like to learn things,” Arianna says.

This bus looks like any other school bus: it’s big, it’s yellow and it has the name of Arianna’s school district, Hutto ISD, on the side.

But, when the second grader steps on the school bus, it doesn’t go anywhere. In fact, it stays parked on the street outside her home for two hours.

That’s because this isn’t your typical school bus. It is, according to Arianna, magic. Inside the bus is a card table and chairs, bins full of hands-on learning materials and two of Arianna’s favorite teachers. This bus has brought Arianna’s special education classroom to her.

‘What can we do to help?’

Karen Perez teaching one of her special education students inside Hutto ISD's school bus classroom (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)
Arwyn Gonzalez learning inside her curbside classroom with teacher Karen Perez (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)

Karen Perez is one of the teachers in Arianna’s curbside classroom. She’s the district’s Transition and Lifeskills Coordinator. Perez has been teaching special education for over two decades, but this is her first year teaching on a bus.

On this day, Perez is reviewing money math with Arianna and her twin sister, Arwyn. Perez has a big jar full of coins, and the girls dig in, counting, sorting and “buying” crayons from Perez. It’s exactly the kind of hands-on learning that works for Arianna and Arwyn and exactly the kind of learning that wasn’t possible over a screen.

“We have students with different needs. Some of them have difficulty staying focused for more than five or 10 minutes,” Perez said. “We also have kids who need hands-on manipulatives and a lot of visual things. When we realized how many of our students were struggling to learn virtually, we were thinking, ‘What can we do to help them?'”

Like so many solutions born during the pandemic, the magic school bus came to life by reimagining how to use resources already on hand.

The district had an empty bus, and transportation supervisor Daniel Martinez volunteered to not only drive the bus but also help keep it disinfected. They had materials that could be packed up and transported to each student. They just needed the teachers.

“Our director said, ‘Let’s look for volunteers’ because at the time all of the teachers could still stay virtual,” Perez said. “So we said, ‘Who is willing to do that?’ and the majority of Hutto ISD Special Education teachers were saying, ‘I am willing to do that!'”

Out of reach

The pandemic has forced students nationwide to adapt to new ways of learning, and the transition has been difficult for many families. But, for some of the nation’s 7.1 million students receiving special education services, the shift to a virtual platform put the services and help they rely on almost out of reach.

The mobile classroom set up inside this bus delivers one-on-one special education curbside to Hutto ISD students (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)

Jennifer Gonzalez is Arywn and Arianna’s mother, and she says she quickly saw that some of her girls’ essential therapies weren’t going to work virtually. But the girls are immunocompromised, so learning inside a traditional classroom wasn’t an option this year.

“It’s really hard because the teacher needs to be physically involved in showing them, ‘You need to make sure you’re writing this way. You’re cutting this way or opening this way.’ Whatever they may be struggling with,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said that’s one of the big reasons the magic school bus is such a critical tool in helping her girls continue to grow this year.

“When it comes to those occupational needs and those speech needs, they’re not getting those services met because they’re not in school,” Gonzalez said. “As a parent, you really begin to worry how much they might lag for the year. With [the bus] we feel a lot of relief that they’re not going to be as far behind.”

Limited resources, limited reach

Fourteen percent of students in Hutto ISD receive special education services. That’s nearly 1,200 students. Arianna and Arwyn are two of 12 students currently served by the magic school bus.

Hutto ISD’s Director of Special Education, Dr. Stacie Koerth, says the magic school bus team will be given its own bus in November, expanding its reach to 35 students a week.

The program is time-intensive and relies on available buses and teachers who are already carrying a heavier workload during the pandemic. Dr. Koerth says they hope to hire a full-time staff member to help run the program this year. She says her team would love to serve more students, but right now they have a waiting list that is first-come, first-served.

Different types of progress

Arwyn and Arianna’s mother said the benefits that her girls receive from the magic school bus program were obvious from the get-go.

“As soon as Arwyn got on the bus the first time, she was super excited to see her teachers, to see her occupational therapist, Ms. Melissa,” Gonzalez said. “It was a really great thing for her.”

Perez says progress for students who learn on the magic school bus will be tracked just like their peers who are learning in a traditional classroom. The special education team keeps data on the goals set out in each child’s Individualized Educational Program, or IEP, and shares that with their teachers on campus.

But, there’s another less-quantifiable benefit Perez says will have an impact long after kids like Arwyn and Arianna graduate from elementary school.

“It’s the relationship, and it’s the trust,” Perez said. “It is the give and take of that relationship, and I think that is what is missing virtually, especially for our students.”

Partnering with the national non-profit Solutions Journalism Network, Nexstar stations nationwide are telling unique stories about how the pandemic has exposed inequities for students and the solutions some groups have found to bridge that gap.

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