Topsham students read while they ride with 'Bus Book Bags'

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TOPSHAM — Schools are encouraging kids to read more at home and at school.

School bus driver Don Sanders is trying to boost it on the ride in between.

Sanders’ “Bus Book Bags” program, now a joint effort between School Administrative District 75 and the Topsham Public Library, has become a big success – not just in encouraging children to read, but also in developing friendships between the younger, elementary-age students and the older ones who read to them.

Sanders, who is also president of the Merrymeeting Employees Association, said with a laugh last week that when kindergartners and first-graders get on the bus, they’re a little “unsettled.”

“So I try to think of some way to keep them engaged in something,” he said.

Sanders brought a few children’s books from home last October. Then he asked some fourth- and fifth-graders to come to the front of the bus, sit with the younger students, and read to them.

The arrangement was immediately popular with both sets of kids. And now, it’s not just about reading; sometimes it’s just the simple act of having a chat.

“It’s good to get the younger ones to sit with some older kids,” Sanders said, noting that kids are often segregated by age. “So I figured, ‘let them interact with the older kids, and see how it works out.’ And it works out great.”

Plus the program provides a much calmer bus environment.

“It teaches them … about keeping (in) your seat, (and) not making a lot of noises,” Sanders said. “The normal bus rules that make driving a lot easier.”

“Not everybody wants to do it everyday, but somebody wants to read books everyday,” Sanders said. “So that’s why I keep (the books) right on the bus.”

Sanders, who spent 24 years in the U.S. Navy, has driven buses the past 14 years for SAD 75. His regular routes include the Williams Cone Elementary School, and Mt. Ararat High and Middle schools.

Williams Cone Principal Randa Rineer brought books from home after Sanders mentioned the initiative to her. With the students’ appetites unabated, books were then added from the school library.

“To date, the feedback from the students, drivers and parents has been most positive,” Rineer said in an email March 1. “Students in grades 3-5 serve as positive role models for the younger students, behavior concerns have declined, and it also supports reading in a variety of ways, from piquing student interest in a variety of books to increasing reading fluency, vocabulary and comprehension skills for both the reader and the listener.”

Sanders at first had 10 books at a time on his bus, but two successful weeks made it clear the program should grow to include other Williams Cone bus drivers, which meant 40 books were needed. The school could only provide so many, so Sanders, a regular user of the Topsham Public Library, turned there for more supplies.

“When Don asked for help in getting books on the buses, Mariah Sewall, our Children’s Librarian thought it was a great idea,” Susan Preece, the library’s director, said in an email Feb. 27. “Mariah, Don and the rest of the library staff figured out a simple system to get 90 books onto elementary buses. The program is a hit in large part due to the great selections that Mariah picks for the Bus Book Bags and to Don’s understated genius.”

“We all want kids to read,” Preece added. “We know that reading is the single most important thing to ensure academic and lifelong success. When we offer children regular reading opportunities and model reading behavior, we are truly making a difference in (their) lives.”

The library set up a “Bus Book Bag” account for Sanders, and 10 books on each bus are stored in decorated canvas bags. When students from every bus have read every book, Sanders brings them back to the library for more. The bags are rotated over the course of four weeks, according to the library.

“It’s a wide variety of books,” Sanders said. “From easy reading, to fiction, non-fiction. There are books on dinosaurs, there are books on big trucks, there’s ‘Prickles and the Dust Bunnies.'”

Books on dinosaurs and the animal kingdom as a whole are among the biggest hits, he added.

Rineer noted that the “Bus Book Bags” program fits with her school’s theme this year: “Building a Reading Life at Home and at School.”

“Now it’s at home, on the bus, and at school,” Sanders said.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

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Don Sanders, a bus driver for Topsham schools, spearheaded a “Bus Book Bags” program which, with help from the Topsham Public Library and school staff, has grown into a great success for elementary school students. Sanders is shown here with his granddaughter, fourth-grader Madilyn Onorato, right, who is reading to kindergartner Annika Emmert.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.