February 4, 2013 10:06:16 AM
STARKVILLE -- The final bell of the day rings, and about 30 third through fifth-graders are on their way to meet another Bell.
Pauline Bell warmly greets her children as they climb aboard Bus No. 16 at Henderson Ward Stewart Elementary on Friday.
They aren't really her children, of course, but it would be easy to make that assumption based on how she interacts with the kids.
"Miss Bell, can I eat my snack?" one girl asks. "I didn't get a chance to eat it at break."
Bell looks at the girl for a second, as if the third-grader should already know the answer.
"No ma'am you cannot," she says, putting an emphasis on each word. "You know you'll be home in about three minutes. You can eat it then."
The girl offers no argument. She nods her head and sits down in the front seat of the bus.
The respect the children have for their driver is obvious, their polite response to her, charming.
Bell, who has been a bus driver for the Starkville School District for seven years, has worked for that respect, though. She has not always enjoyed this kind of authority.
Navigating a 14-ton 37-foot school bus is difficult enough. Add to that equation the unpredictable energy of 30 elementary school students and it makes for a recipe for a distracted driver and a serious safety concern.
So five years ago, Bell decided she needed a way to keep the kids entertained and quiet.
Around that time, Bell says she was about to go on vacation with some family for the weekend. She was in the car waiting on other family members to load up, when she saw her niece emerge from the house with an armful of books.
"Someone said to her, 'We are going on a fun vacation why are you bringing books?'" Bell recalls. "My niece turned around and said, 'Reading is fun to me.'"
That's all it took. The next week, after picking up all of her kids on the morning route, she asked them if they would be interested in trying something a little different.
Instead of just visiting with their friends, Bell suggested the kids take turns reading their favorite books.
The kids eagerly agreed.
Somewhat surprised with their enthusiastic response, Bell was then tasked with figuring out how her idea would work.
"I thought, 'Someone has to play the teacher, while the rest of the kids play the students,'" Bell says. "And maybe, because they are playing, they'll go along with it."
So that's just what she did. She began passing out a sign-up sheet, and after collecting all of the her riders on the morning route, the child signed up for that day would approach the front of the bus with a book, and read aloud for the remainder of the route.
After two weeks of trying the new method, Bell asked the children if they wanted to keep their morning reading time.
"They all said yes," Bell remembers, a smile stretching across her face. "And I said, 'OK, this thing is going to work.'"
Now, five years later, every morning on Bus No. 16 is the same. When Bell picks up the last rider in the morning, she asks the kids, "What time is it?" and they respond, "Reading time!'' in unison.
Reading is completely voluntary, but you have to be quick to the sign-up sheet. Bell already has students signed up for the whole month of February.
"I didn't know it would be this big of a deal, honestly," she says. "They are getting practice with reading, with public speaking and standing up in front of their peers. They are getting all this practice before they even get to school."
Administrators said they had no knowledge of Bells' impromptu reading sessions. In fact, word of Bell's "Reading Rainbow" program, has just recently spread through the ranks of the district, but administrators like Assistant Superintendent Tori Holloway have backed her initiative and see no reason to stop it.
As of now, the "Reading Rainbow" program is only part of the morning route, because Bell says she thinks the kids need some time to socialize, too. But she has been getting a lot of requests from them to start doing it in the afternoon as well, and if enough of the kids come forward, she says she'll have to start an afternoon program.
One thing is for sure, neither Bell nor her kids want to end the program, and it does not look as though there should be any cause for worry. Bell says she doesn't see an end to her bus driving days. Not yet, at least.
"The kids want me to keep doing it, so I am going to keep doing it," Bell says, welcoming her last rider Friday afternoon. "They are having fun and not getting into trouble, and they have no idea the kind of skills they are building."
As the last rider, another young girl, passes by Bell, she hears the driver talking about the program. The little girl, with a backpack nearly as big as she is, whips around.
"I want to read!" she says, brightly.