ROARING FORK VALLEY, Colo. — In a valley renowned for its world-class ski resorts and unrivaled outdoor recreation, with 14,000-foot peaks that pierce the horizon, five-star hotels, designer storefronts and multimillion-dollar mountainside mansions, there is a fleet of short, white buses stamped with geometric shapes.
Parked in the lots of schools, churches and community centers, the buses are inconspicuous. Most passersby would overlook them, distracted by the natural beauty of their backdrop.
But inside, day after day, small wonders are unfolding. Gutted and retrofitted to look like traditional preschool classrooms, these mobile spaces host 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds in the valley who, otherwise, likely wouldn’t see a formal learning environment until kindergarten, by which time many of their peers are already steps ahead.
The El Busesito “little bus” preschool is run by Valley Settlement, a nonprofit that delivers free early childhood and family engagement programs to Latino immigrant families in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley. The 40-mile region stretches from the red rock cliffs and geothermal pools of Glenwood Springs to the luxury resort town of Aspen and is marked by wide social and economic disparity. El Busesito operates four buses that travel to five neighborhoods to provide bilingual preschool education for nearly 100 children in the community.
Launched in 2011 as a project of the Manaus Fund, a local social justice organization, and later established as an independent nonprofit, Valley Settlement now has a half-dozen programs that serve children and families in concert, including those for infants and toddlers, pregnant and postpartum women, and caregivers.
The organization—and its two-generation approach to programming—was born out of conversations with more than 250 of the area’s low-wage immigrant families, a population that ballooned at the turn of the century and undergirds the very attractions and amenities that draw tourists and billionaires to the valley year-round. What did they need? What were their hopes for themselves and their children? What did they wish for their futures?
Only 1 percent of families with children eligible for preschool had actually enrolled them in it, organizers learned. What they needed most, what they hoped for their children, was early education.
In the parking lot of a community center in El Jebel, an unincorporated town halfway up the valley, children arrive one at a time and climb the three steps up into their 22-foot-long mobile classroom, which fills their vision with bursts of primary colors from the moment they cross its threshold.
Once on the bus, after 30 minutes of free play, in which the kids flit between activities involving paint, dress-up costumes and building blocks, lead teacher Sarai Ramirez plays music to cue the transition to cleanup, followed by circle time.
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