The books on the bus ...

Published March 1, 2007

LECANTO - When bus driver Leslie Allen arrives at Homosassa Elementary School, some of the students get off the bus to eat breakfast. Those remaining have five or 10 minutes before they can go to their classroom.

Rather than have the children just sitting there, Allen has a way of entertaining them.

"In the mornings, if there's time," she said, "I read to (the children)."

Book time on the bus doesn't end with the morning reading. Students are encouraged to select one of the books Allen has on board for the ride home.

"They will pick up a book. It distracts them and it's a good way to get to know them," Allen said. "I had one who wanted a book on sign language and I have one on the bus now. Sometimes they ask to borrow (a book) and they've been very good about bringing it back the next day."

The idea of having drivers read to riders and to provide books for riders to read themselves came from Lecanto bus garage route manager Alice Rowland.

"I keep encouraging the drivers to encourage their kids to read," she said. "There's a lot of time on the buses."

There are three goals of the Ride and Read program: to support what is taught in school, to develop reading enjoyment and to provide resources and encouragement for reading while riding.

Several local businesses contribute to the program, including Pizza Hut, Wendy's, Dairy Queen, McDonald's and Taco Bell.

The program began with the 2005-06 school year, but participation was slim. This year interest has grown.

Bus operators who have very recently joined include: Jody Gaskins, Hernando Elementary School; Jo Anne Sinclair, Lecanto Middle School; Diane Nix, Forest Ridge Elementary School; Hank Kaiser, CREST School; Teresa Ewbald, Lecanto Primary; and Tammy Allen, Lecanto Primary.

Jose Gonzalez, a driver for CREST School and Renaissance Center and Lucille Blanchard, a driver for Lecanto Primary School and Withlacoochee Technical Institute, like Allen, have been at it for a while.

Gonzalez gives the students incentive to read. His students are older than Allen's and the age-appropriate books are thicker. To encourage the students he offers an age-appropriate reward - pizza. To earn a pizza lunch at school for the reader and a friend with Gonzalez, the student has to read five books and submit a paragraph about each to their driver.

One student has accomplished that and is on the fourth book toward his next pizza. Gonzalez says the program has really made a difference with that student.

"You have to do more than drive the bus, you have to care about the kids," he said.

Blanchard keeps track of her readers and awards certificates.

"Pretty much every kid on her bus is reading and her parents are very much involved," Rowland said.

Sometimes the readers are the parents. Some Withlacoochee Technical students are teens with infants. The program encourages the teens to read to their babies - the system's youngest riders.