While the pandemic brought about a number of challenges, it also inspired opportunities — like the brightly colored bus full of preschoolers who can often be heard singing along with teacher Jeri Melo.
Melo transformed the interior of a bus into a mobile learning space — equipped with everything you’d find in a typical preschool classroom — as a way to support her students she called Classroom To Go.
“You see mobile dog groomers, you see food trucks, you see even mobile hair salons, so I was like, ‘You know what, why couldn’t a preschool work,’” Melo said. “Instead of thinking outside the box, I just put my box on wheels.”
From pandemic shut down to purchasing a bus
The Santa Clarita native was teaching at a local preschool when COVID-19 hit, and being a single mom, Melo needed to find a way to continue support her own kids, who were also out of school.
“Teaching is really the only thing that I know,” she said. “So, I kind of tinkered with a few ideas.”
Like most, Melo began with virtual lessons, even creating activity bags she called “Classroom to Go,” which could be delivered to families to keep the kids engaged.
Even so, it was challenging, as the virtual learning environment was hardly conducive to a young child’s attention span, and soon, parents began asking if Melo would mind tutoring their child in-person in small cohorts.
“My car just turned into a storage unit for bringing supplies from my house to the family’s homes,” she said, adding it didn’t take her long to realize the school-at-home setup just wasn’t cutting it.
While most were online shopping for toilet paper and hand sanitizer mid-pandemic, Melo was purchasing a bus and transforming it into a classroom.
“I wanted to be safe for the families, and while I did want to teach in their homes, I wanted to be safe for myself, as well, so the only way I could figure out how to do that is to bring a classroom to them,” Melo added.
Creating a safe space for students
When classes began in August, Melo started with seven students and slowly increased that to 13.
“The children step onto my bus, and it’s a controlled environment where I know who’s going on it, who’s coming off of it, and so on, so forth,” she added. “It’s how I would like it to be: just a small, intimate group, where the families have really become each other’s support system throughout this whole thing.”
A cohort of three students from the school Melo used to teach at and whose families are comfortable with one another have since begun school on the bus, including Juanice Reyna’s 5-year-old son Maddox.
Before the bus, Maddox was struggling to focus on the virtual lessons, which worried Reyna, but she said she immediately saw a change in him when he returned to in-person instruction.
“I just don’t think learning on a computer for a five-year-old works,” she said. “I think they just need that one-on-one, personal interaction.”
When Melo told her about the bus, Reyna said, “‘OK, we’re totally in.’ I thought it was crazy at first, but she really did it, and then once we just saw everything come together, it was a great experience for the kids.”
For Maddox, who already had a great relationship with Melo before the pandemic, it’s been nothing but smiles.
“He loves it. He looks forward to it, and he’s always asking me when we’re going,” Reyna said, adding that she believes it was the right decision. “They’re still getting that interaction, they’re still learning, (but) right now with the times, I just feel safer with a small group of kids and her.”
And it’s kids like Maddox that have inspired Melo, who wants to be a hybrid of Mr. Rogers and Ms. Frizzle from “The Magic School Bus.”
“Most of those these children are going into kindergarten next year, and they might know their ABCs … but just even learning how to take direction from someone outside of their home is a big deal,” she said. “If I can support their wellbeing and their health and just bring positive energy, I’m going to do it.”
A lot of the activities that she did with her students in her last classroom translated onto the bus, just on a much smaller scale, with a focus on inclusion and diversity.
“I just wanted everyone to feel like they were represented in some way, whether it be a poster, a book, a doll,” she added. “That was just my biggest goal is for everyone to feel like they’re home, especially during a time when everyone feels very separated. … I feel like there’s a lack of community right now — that’s the world we’re in right now — so even if it’s just these little baby steps, I think it’s a step in the right direction.”
Making the classroom even more special
At the beginning of the year, Melo heard of Brittany Jeltema, who was taking applications for classroom makeovers from teachers across the country as a way to give back to educators.
With the help of parents, Melo’s application was chosen from more than 1,000 submissions to receive the makeover, according to Jeltema, who traveled from Ohio to complete the project.
“All teachers are deserving, but something stood out about Jeri,” Jeltema said. “She has created a completely new concept, and I knew I wanted to help her achieve her goal and grow. Her students will have the opportunity to experience education through a different lens and discover growth that can only be seen in a mobile classroom setting like this.”
Jeltema not only thought the idea was remarkable, but also was excited to tackle the challenge of flipping a school bus into a classroom setting, complete with seating, storage, learning tools and a mural on the outside.
“It’s incredible,” Melo said. “I am so extremely blessed to have gotten that opportunity … The possibilities are endless.”