She calls it Estella’s Brilliant Bus, and she uses it to bring computer-based learning to some of the most forgotten schoolchildren in America.
Estella Mims Pyform grew up in these backwaters, a daughter of the segregated South who started working in the fields at age 6 as a migrant worker, her family annually going up the road, as they called it, from the Okeechobee mudlands of Florida to the hills of New York State.
“Beans, potatoes, strawberries, corn, apples, tomatoes,” she recalls one quiet morning on board the technology-laden bus, her eyes still seeing those sweat-gained crops in the grip of her hands.
All the while, until she was 25 years old, she and her six siblings went to school.
“My father had a different concept from most people. His attitude about education was, we as parents need to do what we have to do to make sure you go to school. So if you have to work a little harder, fine. So even in New York when we traveled, if school was open, we went.”
She earned four college degrees and became a teacher, guidance counselor and high school drill-team coach back in her hometown of Belle Glade, an Everglades town so destitute that it was the subject of the famous 1960s Edward R. Murrow TV documentary, “Harvest of Shame,” that opened America’s eyes to home-grown poverty.
She notched 50 years with the Palm Beach County School District, interrupted by two years in which she attempted to retire, only to come back as an elementary-school guidance counselor because she still saw much to do.
“In working with the low-income families, I saw so much that was needed,” Pyfrom says. For some of them, “not even soap to bathe with. Or detergent to wash the clothes with.”
After a while, “you start asking yourself, what can I do to make a difference to this population of people?”
They were her people. She’d gone to school with them. She’d taught, coached and counseled their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She knows they’ll be lost if the education system passes them by.
Just as urgently, they need computer skills.
“It’s absolutely necessary,” says this 76-year-old who grew up without a radio, never mind a TV. “We’re in an age of technology and computers. Just to fill out a job application — you can’t do that on paper anymore.”
The idea of a bus seemed a natural way to spread the knowledge to these Everglade towns, located miles from everywhere else. “I couldn’t think of a better way to get it out to them.”
She had the vehicle built to her specifications, from the wheels and chassis on up, designing it so that she could be driver, if need be. She spent about $900,000 of her own money, a hefty chunk of her retirement savings after a lifetime of work, which included night work in addition to her day jobs. She sold insurance and taught evening classes, all while raising four children of her own (two with Ph.Ds) and three kids of her youngest sister.
She started in 2009, but had to take a few months off to nurse her husband of 60 years, Willie Pyfrom, the retired director of the celebrated Glades Central High School marching band, from a dire illness. The bus, and its modern tools of knowledge, finally got rolling about two years ago.
Instead of passenger seats, the interior is lined along each side with formica counters, swivel seats and 17 computer terminals, interconnected and wired by satellite, WiFi and hot spot for the Internet. There’s a steady hum of a generator, keeping it all running.
From its base in a locked storage center in West Palm Beach, Fla., she rolls the bus on Mondays to an elementary school in rural Pahokee, where 3rd, 4th and 5th graders study science and math to prepare them for statewide standardized tests. On other days, she takes the vehicle to community centers in Lake Worth and Riviera Beach, where children as young as 3 and 4 climb aboard to learn basic skills of reading, writing and ‘rithmetic.
The kids will board the bus in shifts of 30 or 45 minutes, about 80 kids in all in the course of a day.
When she teaches preschools, Pyfrom insists a parent sit alongside. Together, a mom and a child will look at the same computerized lessons on adjoining screens: cheery exercises in primary colors that ask the kids to identify letters of the alphabet with sounds they hear over a pair of headphones.
Many of the children are brand new to computers. Some don’t know how to use a mouse. In those cases, the kids will point to the answer on the screen; the moms will click the mouse for them.
The parental involvement is a big part of it, Pyfrom believes. She gives parents the children’s pass codes, so they can continue the lessons at home if they have the Internet. Many don’t. In those cases, she hands out applications for a Comcast program providing low-income households with Internet service for $10 a month and notebook computers for $149 — affordable bridges across the digital divide.
“It allows them to spend quality time with the kids,” she says, “and this whole process is helping the kids with their readiness skills. Because if you put a kid in school and they’re ready to learn, they’re going to move.”
Robbie Everett, a media specialist at Pahokee Elementary School, is very glad that Pyfrom’s been bringing her bus up State Road 80 and parking it in the school parking lot each Monday. The school has a computer lab, but with only enough space for students to attend once a week. With the bus, many children double their access to computers to twice a week.
“It really helps our kids,” said Everett, who had Pyfrom as her 4th-grade teacher and then knew her as a school-district colleague. “The children love it. They really love it.” One thing they love is the chance to play games. But the lessons are slyly rigged; to play a game, you have to get an answer right the first time. On Estella’s Brilliant Bus, you can bet those kids are concentrating on the questions.
All the while, the computers are generating detailed readouts showing children’s progress through the specific skills required in Florida standards: root words, content clues, synonyms, and the like. Children need a 90 percent score to move to the next level, or else repeat the lesson. According to Pyfrom, the readouts are recording an accumulating account of student progress.
How long will she keep this up? “I’m going to do it for as long as I can afford to do it,” she says. At $400 just to fill up the tank with diesel, her money won’t last forever — maybe two years. By then, she hopes, she’ll get enough help from grants or individual donations to continue. Her health, at least, is not an issue. “I’m blessed. I get up every morning, I feel good. I don’t have aches and pains.”
She gets incalculable help from Patrick Morris, a drug-rehab counselor who works at night so he can spend his days volunteering to keep her computers running, her motor purring and do the driving.
Why so dedicated? Morris answers with a self-effacing shrug. “It’s a need,” he says, “and I’m in a position to help.”
Last week, she was the subject of a terrific segment on the NBC Nightly News. (See it here. It’s not to be missed.)
She has used the experiences of her life to forge a philosophy: “You make your breaks and you determine your own destiny. You work hard and make things happen for yourself — and don’t use what you don’t have as an excuse.”
She expresses that philosophy in a converted coach with slogans painted on its sides: “Have Knowledge Will Travel.” “We Bring Learning To You.”
“We’re going to keep rolling,” Estella Pyfrom says.
– Story and photos by Howard Goodman
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