The wheels of The Little Ranger Roadster RV are going round and round all through the area, bringing with them preschool activities and teachers.

The Little Ranger Roadster is the Forest Lake Area Early Childhood Family Education program’s new mobile preschool learning environment that will trek across the community, making stops at libraries, mobile home parks and other areas to host a free preschool hour for area children.

“I’m really excited to get it off the ground,” Early Childhood coordinator Bethany Hardy said. “Getting it out into the community and getting a preschool experience out to people who need it and wouldn’t otherwise be able to have this experience is important, especially those in a more vulnerable area.”

The ECFE program gets money from the state specifically for school readiness, which aims to prepare children to succeed in kindergarten. Those funds can only be used for school readiness, and what isn’t used up will roll over into the next year. Forest Lake’s ECFE has accumulated a surplus, which begged the question to staff about what to use it for.

Every year, the ECFE does a needs assessment for the young students across the district, and through that process it recognized some children in the area didn’t attend preschool because of a lack of transportation or financial strains. So the leadership at the ECFE began brainstorming ways to meet those needs. They thought about bringing preschool supply totes into a community room in apartment buildings but ran into blocks due to the fact there aren’t many of those rooms available. Then, the team heard about a vehicle in Pine City used to store and transport preschool supplies to area parks. The Forest Lake team thought of doing something similar, but with a twist.

“We thought, ‘Why don’t we do that, but why don’t we make it a preschool so they can come into it?’” Hardy said. “So this is us dreaming super big, thinking, ‘Could we actually do this?’”

It was a creative idea, but with a limited budget and unique needs, the details mattered, including the possibility of needing a special license to drive the vehicle.

“Wendy [Cook, Early Childhood support manager] had this genius idea of ‘If we do an RV, we don’t have to have a special license,’” Hardy said.

Last October, with a look at the budget and a call to Coates RV in Columbus, the team found the RV and began the work of designing the interior with Coates. The Roadster team hoped to get the RV ready for $50,000, but upon completion, it cost $60,000. Hardy said that while the cost was over the original estimate, the program was still within its budget, and operating costs are into the school readiness annual budget, as well.

“We started working with [Coates] and their service department, and told them what we wanted to do with it, and they were super stoked,” Hardy said. “We left it in their hands. ... They made our dream happen.”

While Coates worked on the renovation and building of the preschool RV, the team was working on all the other necessary details to purchase of the new vehicle. The Little Ranger Roadster is so unique, Hardy said, that the district’s insurance company had a difficult time writing the vehicle up for coverage.

“There really isn’t any standard for it,” Hardy said. “There was really nobody to base our information off of. The info we originally gathered from was ... a [Colorado program that used a] coach bus, and that was the closest thing we found. That’s obviously different in size, so we had nothing to compare it to, and insurance companies had nothing to compare it to. It’s a new ground for everybody, so we had to take it step by step.”

As the larger design scheme for the RV came together, so did the preschool items. Hardy said organizers wanted to keep the RV as close to a typical preschool classroom as possible, and it’s supplied as such.

“We’re taking every single component we have in a class, but scaling it down in size,” Hardy said. Separating quiet and loud spaces in the space, an important component in preschool classroom setups, seemed impossible, but once again the teachers worked with Coates to accomplish that in the space of the bed over the cab.

“We told Coates, ‘It’d be nice to get kids up there, but we’re not sure how to do it in the safest manner.’ And the surface [design and build] guys were like, ‘We have a good idea,’” Hardy said. The designers built a carpeted space with a plexiglass wall to keep kids from falling out. Then, they added a ladder so kids could climb up the steps and enter through a hole in the plexiglass. The hole is big enough for a parent to crawl up and get a child reluctant to come down.

“That created its own quiet space, so we have our nice book and puzzle area,” Hardy said.

The RV has a preschool teacher, a teaching assistant, and a parent educator, who are all financed through the school readiness fund. The Little Ranger Roadster made its debut in the Forest Lake Fourth of July parade and made its first real stop at the Hardwood Creek Library in October, where students could experience preschool for an hour and parents were given a parenting education time. Through December, the RV will make stops at the Hardwood Creek Library and the Woodlund Mobile Home Park. The Little Ranger Roadster will likely see more stops as the team behind it continues to work out the best way to deploy it..

“It was a fun build to see it come together and the pieces fall into place,” Hardy said.

For more information about The Little Ranger Roadster, visit forestlake.ce.eleyo.com and search “Little Ranger Roadster.”

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Hannah Davis is the Area Editor at the Forest Lake Times. You can contact her at hannah.davis@ecm-inc.com or (763)233-0709

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