Bus Run: Fostering ties with Rusk Elementary families, one book at a time

by Jo Anne Embleton news@thecherokeean.com

RUSK – Fostering a love of literature has blossomed into something more for Rusk Elementary School staff, who have created strong bonds with the families they serve, thanks to the Bus Run, a local project that began four years ago.

“I think the Bus Run helps set the tone (for the school year) by showing the students we are excited that school is starting – it shows we missed them. It tells them we value them and want to have them at school every day,” said P.E. teacher Melonie Hoffman.

This year’s event – centered around the Jon Gordon book, “The Energy Bus For Kids” – was held Aug. 2, with about half a dozen school faculty distributing books they collected over the months, then gave away during different stops throughout the city.

“We had three scheduled stops at local playgrounds, but we made several more stops as we saw kids in their yards and visited the homes of the students who we knew lived in the neighborhoods close to where we visited,” said elementary school principal Ashley Oliver.

Initially, “we scheduled the event during an in-service day, but realized families weren’t home during the day, so we scheduled it in the evening. Since it’s after work hours, it’s a voluntary event for our staff, but they always show up with excitement and we have always had a full bus!” she said.

Donated books – as well those as collected by staff who “scavenge garage sales and Facebook Marketplace for

for used books” – are collected so they can “put books in the hands and homes of the children in our community,” Oliver said.

This year, second grade math teacher Miranda Murray’s made her inaugural trip on the Bus Run, which was as much fun for her as it was for the students they visited.

“I was eager to see students I’ve previously taught and meet new faces of students in our community, and it was a great opportunity to get our students excited about the start of a new school year and to provide them with books to read at home,” she said. “Most of our students were super-excited to see us and greeted us with smiles and big hugs. A few were shy and would try to hide while their siblings visited with the teachers, but once they saw and heard how excited we were to see them, they couldn't help but join in on the fun! They all loved getting to pick out books from their teachers, but above all, I know that having the teachers come to their houses and neighborhoods to see them is what meant the most to them.”

Hoffman, a 25-year educator at Rusk Elementary, agreed.

“It is always so fun to see the students on their ‘turf,’ so to speak, away from school. They love seeing us look for them,” she said. “My favorite part is seeing the students smile and getting those hugs.”

Staff members “always look forward to the event, (as) it’s a time of fellowship for us,” Oliver said. “But it’s always so heart-warming to see those students run – arms wide open – into their teachers’ arms, expressing how much they missed them.

“The students are always eager to receive books and candy, and when they ask for more, we fill their hands, but the message that THEY MATTER is the real gift we leave with them,” she said. “In the end, our hearts are full and it truly sparks the anticipation to welcome our students back to school.”

The project began four years ago – originated by former principal Debbie Welch, school counselor Elizabeth Cahalane and Oliver – with the goal of making connections that would foster stronger relationships with students and their families. Over time, it has blossomed into something more.

“I think we can take the positive, happy energy from the Bus Run into our classrooms to help set the tone for our classrooms,” Murray said. “As teachers, we want our students to be engaged in their learning, but first we have to build relationships with them and get them excited to be at school. I feel like the bus run really helps with that, because the students feel our energy and we are able to start building those relationships in their neighborhoods.”

Both she and Hoffman encouraged other schools to adopt a similar project, simply because the time invested pays off handsomely.

“I would love to see other districts do this or something similar. I think it definitely brings the community closer. It also shows the parents that we love their babies,” Hoffman said, as Murray described how the Bus Run “creates connections” between school and community, building relationships “between teachers, students and parents while providing books and promoting reading.

“These relationships are essential for student success,” Murray said.