Most summer days, the students of You be You Early Learning unleash their torrent of energy in a classroom shaded by a canopy of cottonwood leaves, with slivers of sunlight cascading over them as they play rounds of musical chairs after learning how to add numbers or identify the different kinds of bugs living in their neighborhood.
When dark clouds roll in and the tree branches above them begin to tremble, the students return to their other classroom, a giant blue bus just steps away. The bus doesn’t transport them to school but rather is their school, lined with wooden shelves that hold all the necessities of a classroom — stacks of children’s books, a globe and bottles of paint — as brightly colored posters spelling out the different seasons and planets hang above.
The preschool, which opened in May 2021 as many families in Aurora’s Willow Park Apartments were confined to their homes during COVID, brings school directly to students a short walk from each of their doorsteps. It’s an especially convenient way to introduce school to kids whose families rely on government assistance for housing and who can’t easily access transportation. And, with the bus parked every day and night in the apartment lot, the school on wheels has become another fixture of the neighborhood and is now a place that folds an entire community into the work of educating students.
“We feel that families are the first teachers of the kids, and you need to respect their culture, to respect their wishes and ideas for their kids and incorporate that in our own teaching,” said Roya Brown, executive director of You be You Early Learning. “So we want them to trust us because when you work collaboratively with the families, just like you work collaboratively with other teachers … you can bring more power in teaching and learning.”
Brown, a former engineer who has taught for 25 years, set out to create a preschool where kids could get an early grasp on science. The curriculum, with lessons on the basics of ocean life, physics, chemistry and entomology, for example, is intended to allow educators to push beyond the constraints of typical schools where academic standards, rather than teacher ingenuity, influence curriculum decisions and the pace of learning.
A team of five educators steers the nonprofit school, running it through what they call a “teacher-led cooperative” in which each teacher takes on extra responsibilities, including shaping standards and instruction and handling communications, operations and licensing, professional development, and diversity and inclusion efforts.
“The teacher must love their work and be free of all these top-down models of telling them what to do,” said Brown, who delved into early childhood education after multiple failed attempts to start a charter school in Aurora and Denver.
“I suddenly discovered, oh my God, learning starts here,” she added, wanting to seize the ages and stages at which kids’ curiosity starts to crescendo.
The school, which provides free programming to families and covers expenses primarily through grants, fundraising and a stipend from the Aurora Housing Authority, hosts another mobile school in Aurora’s Peoria Crossing apartment complex, home to more low-income families. You be You Early Learning has a contract with the housing authority to plant its schools in those neighborhoods.
But instead of learning on a bus, students from Peoria Crossing climb aboard a RV that Brown drives each morning from her home in Aurora. The nonprofit next hopes to secure a trailer to build a third school by the end of the year and launch a program next summer in Denver’s Montbello neighborhood, Brown said.
The early childhood education center is not yet licensed by the state but is in the process of applying for a license from the Colorado Department of Early Childhood. That license will allow the nonprofit to secure more funding resources, including through the state’s newly expanded preschool program. In the meantime, the organization is able to educate young kids without a license because of an exception allowed by the state, which does not require a license for child care programs that center around one particular subject area. You be You Early Learning, for example, teaches children about science.
Over the summers, the center opens up its weekday program to kids ages 3-7 in each neighborhood and during the school year educates students ages 3-5. In Willow Park Apartments, eight kids attend school each morning followed by another eight in the afternoon. The school educates a total of eight students for five hours a day in Peoria Crossing. Students gather for summer programming every Monday through Thursday, with Fridays devoted to professional development and collaboration among teachers.
Each day brings new ways of learning — whether students are picking up foundational math skills by playing bingo, cleaning up trash on the ground to keep their neighborhood clean or hopping on the light rail during a class field trip.
Sometimes they branch far out of their neighborhood classroom, traveling to museums and state landmarks to connect what they’ve learned to other corners of Colorado.
On Thursday, teachers whisked their students to Cave of the Winds Mountain Park in Manitou Springs. During the winter, students visited Hammond’s Candies in Denver to take an up-close look at how confectioners mold candy from liquids to solids as part of a food chemistry unit focused on solids, liquids and gas. And in the spring, You be You classes headed to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science to build on their time spent studying space science.
Other days, the adventures unfold close to home. On Wednesday, as students were getting ready to tour a small cave as part of a class expedition the next day, they fashioned their own cave out of cardboard boxes and tape and scrambled inside to get a feel for what it’s like being in an enclosed space. During a separate lesson in June, staff buried raccoon and elk bones in the pebbly playground so that students, pretending they were dinosaur bones, could excavate them as part of their unit on paleontology. Another lesson that set students’ gaze to the ground challenged them to an insect-themed scavenger hunt, which included a search for roly-pollies and worms.
“Roly-polies don’t bite. They tickle,” said 5-year-old Kamari Neblett, who was among the bravest in the class when picking up a worm without flinching.
The nonprofit has also continued to home in on getting neighborhood families involved in their school sites, hosting seasonal festivals, August graduations for kids about to enter kindergarten and a summer literacy program organized primarily by area teens. And the organization’s teachers like Charron Logan don’t hesitate to go knock on a family’s apartment if their student hasn’t shown up for class.
“They need a safe space and a place that they know they can come,” said Logan, whose 5-year-old son, Noah, attends You be You.
Logan began teaching at You be You a little more than a year ago after first volunteering part time and is one of the local parents that Brown has recruited into the nonprofit’s early childhood education workforce.
“It’s more work,” she said. “However, it’s fantastic because I get to see my involvement and my ideas come to life, not just implement someone else’s (ideas).”
Her favorite part of her job rests on the moments of success, no matter how small or subtle, as she listens to her son and other students talk about what they learn.
“When they retain the information,” Logan said, “that’s what excites me the most and when I get to see it at work or at play.”
Through those stretches of work and play, Logan simply wants to help her students see an endless set of possibilities for their futures and stride into kindergarten confidently, knowing they have a voice and can use it to speak up.
“You be you,” she tells her students. “That’s what we teach them all the time.”
CORRECTION: The photo captions in this story were updated at 4:30 p.m. Monday, Aug. 28, 2023, to remove incorrect information about You be You Early Learning mobile preschool in Aurora.