Road Readers: A Bus Driver Helps Develop Reading Enthusiasts

The rhyme and poetry of Dr. Seuss comes alive the moment Deborah Lazarus pulls her school bus out of River’s Edge Elementary School parking lot in Fayetteville, Georgia. A young student sitting in the front of the bus will open Green Eggs and Ham to page one and prepare to perform as Sam-I-Am.

“Once I complete my turn onto the street, the designated reader begins reading,” says Lazarus, “and the bus gets quiet.”

Among Lazarus’ 50-plus elementary school students assigned to bus No. 872 is a designated reader from fourth through fifth grade who is considered equal parts budding scholar, stage poet, pop star. They are revered by their peers and respected by their elders. Last year, board members with Clayton County Public Schools (CCPS) issued certificates of appreciation to the road readers and acknowledged Lazarus’ program for helping to develop reading enthusiasts early in their academic careers.

“If you start them young, they will develop a lifelong love of reading,” Lazarus, the 2013 CCPS Education Support Professional (ESP) of the Year says. “I want to contribute to that.”

River’s Edge and the Clayton County Education Association also acknowledged the student-centered program and its ESP sponsor for contributing to the academic success of students

On her bus, designated readers are known to practice reading aloud at home to train their adolescent voices to be able to rise over traffic noise, radio dispatcher correspondence, and engine rumble. The educator in Lazarus also encourages readers to use appropriate word speed, inflection, and correct pronunciation. It’s not easy, but there is a waiting list to be a road reader.

“Parents tell me their kids practice in the mirror at home so they’ll be ready for the bus,” says Lazarus, who has driven for CCPS for 13 years. “Reading on the bus not only boosts their reading capacity but also their self-confidence and public speaking skills.”

The program is offered on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. It’s too dark to read in the morning and flashlights are a safety hazard on school buses. Readers are rotated each week with fifth through third graders reading age-appropriate books geared toward second grade through prekindergarten.

Routinely, Lazarus pulls up to the loading zone at 2:00 p.m., 15 minutes before students are dismissed. Her “little ones” board first and begin reading aloud until the last of the fifth graders are one board at about 2:25 p.m.

“The loading zone reader is a beginner,” Lazarus says. “It’s a joy to watch them develop and mature.”

Once the rubber hits the road, the road reader is on stage for about 25-30 minutes, enough time to finish, for example, The Saggy Baggy Elephant, which has 11 pages of large-print text and 11 pages of illustrations. The informal, nameless program started in 2011 with 20 books that Lazarus purchased for about $100 and continues to use as needed.

Lazarus still digs into her pocket to purchase Dr. Seuss erasers, bookmarks, and certificates of appreciation which she hands out to readers at the end of the school year.

In the beginning, Lazarus simply asked students if they wanted to read to themselves on Tuesdays and Thursdays. They agreed.

“But I had so many little ones on board that four of my older girls approached me and asked if they could read aloud to the little ones,” she says. “I agreed and they developed the program into what it is today.”

“I love seeing the enthusiasm of my younger students when they go into their book bags to grab a book for the reader to read,” she adds. “Sometimes, the chosen book to be read is a compilation of stories from one of the “little ones” classroom reading books.”

While older students can read a book or magazine of their choice, the road reader usually chooses a slim book that can be finished before students begin piling out at the first stop, about 2:37 – 2:40 p.m.

“It is hard to pick up where you left off in a story two days later when you are reading to four-through six-year-olds,” says Lazarus, who also drives middle and high school students on two other separate routes. “The entire book is usually read in one run, and if it is a short book, then two books are read.”

If the reader of the day is one of the first to disembark on the 11-stop trek, then a second reader takes over.

“My readers this year have already developed into quite a team,” says Lazarus, known as “Miss Deborah” to students. “If the designated reader doesn’t have a book, someone will give them one to read.”

In addition to instilling a love for reading, the program enhances bus safety.

“When you have 50-plus students on a bus, even talking quietly can be loud,” Lazarus says. “But when all is silent except for one voice calmly reading a book, there are no loud noises to distract the driver from their most important job … driving and getting students home safely.”

Another bonus: children exposed to the program imitate it at home.

“I have had parents tell me how their children on my bus are now reading stories to their younger siblings at night,” she says. “Some even read to their parents and practice their reading with their families so they can someday be readers on the bus.”

In fact, some of the “little ones” don’t want to wait until third or fourth grade to begin reading. Last January, a bold first grader asked Lazarus to be a reader.

“I was hesitant but he was very persistent, so I decided to give it a go,” she says. “He did such a wonderful job that I decided to invite the little ones to read while we are loading and the older ones on the trip home.”

On non-reading days, students will talk quietly among themselves, but reading day is still on their minds.

“They always ask if today is a reading day, and if I say ‘no’ they will ask if they can read to themselves,” Lazarus says. “Of course, I tell them they can read on Miss Deborah’s bus anytime they want.”