The Jungle Bus: Where Reading is an Adventure in Troup County

By Krystin Dean

Reading a book can take a child anywhere—and The Jungle Bus will adventure anywhere in Troup County to put books into the hands of children and foster a love of reading among families.

A collaborative effort between the Troup County School System (TCSS) and United Way, Success By Six, the jungle-themed bus officially hit the road in Sept. 2017 and has already made 90 stops visiting neighborhoods, schools, early learning centers, summer programs, and community events. Around 3,000 books have been distributed to children who lack access to reading materials at home.

The partnership developed in the summer of 2015 when Nicole Kennedy, TCSS parent and family engagement coordinator, connected with Success by Six Coordinator Gail Gordon during a meeting to brainstorm ways to strengthen early learning in Troup County.

“Our students who were entering kindergarten weren’t as prepared as we wanted them to be,” explained Kennedy, who noted that only 25 percent of third graders in Troup were reading and writing proficiently in 2017 compared to the state average of 34 percent.

Early learning is United Way’s platform in Troup County, and the organization already has many projects in place in the community including Success By Six, which provides leadership, resources, and services that ensure children enter school better prepared to learn.

In 2016, Kennedy and Gordon attended the Get Georgia Reading conference held in Tifton along with other reading advocates from TCSS, United Way, and Troup Family Connection Authority.

“Our main takeaway was that we needed to go to families to teach them the importance of reading and early learning,” said Kennedy. “Our schools already offer so many opportunities to build parent capacity, but the parents who need to come don’t come. We also knew that we must start this conversation of early learning with families before it’s time for Pre-K or kindergarten.”

A bookmobile was the perfect way to make reading materials more accessible to families and children in the community because a TCSS bus was available that wasn’t in use—and the organizers knew they could apply for grants to get it back on the road.

The first step was branding the bus. The organizers sought the input of young, creative minds by reaching out to the marketing and entrepreneurship classes at THINC College & Career Academy in LaGrange. Teachers and administrators were thrilled to have students participate in what Kennedy called “an authentic learning project—an example of project-based learning at its finest.”

“The bus project was not only relevant to what we’re learning but also allowed us to help others,” said THINC student Shelby Carver. “We’ve become part of helping kids who might not be able to afford to have books at home. It will help raise their education level to where they have a better chance to succeed.”

More than 20 groups presented ideas for the bus name, slogan, and exterior design to community judges who value reading abilities in students—including retired educators, Chick-fil-A marketing directors, and a young parent expecting his first child, among others—who ultimately voted on the brand “The Jungle Bus: Where Reading is an Adventure.”

One student suggested that the bus have a character related to “Mama Jama,” who’s been well known in Troup County for decades as a “literary ambassador” who loves to visit schools, deliver books, and read to children.

Kennedy poses as Mama Jama’s cousin “Jungle Jama,” creating an instant connection with visitors of all ages. She travels with her friend  “Reading Ranger,” portrayed by Gordon. The duo sings a theme song, shares reading facts and a story, and invites families to board the bus and choose a free book to keep.

“The Jungle Bus, The Jungle Bus! Reading is an adventure on The Jungle Bus! Keep reading! Keep reading! Twenty minutes a day! Keep reading! Keep reading! And you’ll pave the way—for future success in school and life, school and life, school and life! For future success in school and life—KEEP READING BOOKS!”

A $10,000 Innovation Fund Tiny Grant from the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement is funding the bus’s first two years, including transportation, equipment, and supplies. A $6,000 grant from the Rotary covered wrapping the exterior of the bus and helped purchase books.

Community groups and individuals have also donated hundreds of new and gently used books, and three high schools have made considerable contributions. LaGrange High School’s Service Club donated $1,500 to help with start-up expenses, the Troup High School Chorus recorded the bus’s theme song, and Callaway High School’s graphic arts department helps with printing projects.

“Having this buy-in from the teenagers in our community will strengthen early learning efforts for years to come,” said Kennedy.

As a Get Georgia Reading Campaign community, Troup’s literacy leaders aim to ensure all children, starting from birth, are ready to read on grade level by third grade. However, The Jungle Bus serves all age groups, with sections of books for older students with higher Lexile levels and even parents.

“Some of our favorite groups to share with have been high schoolers,” said Kennedy. “They soak up every word we say about the importance of reading, singing, and talking to babies from day one of their lives. Knowing that building capacity in this group will certainly benefit children from future generations makes it an exciting group to share knowledge with each time.”

The Jungle Bus constantly seeks out new neighborhoods and early learning centers to visit, and groups in Troup County can email or reach out via their Facebook page to schedule visits.