The Passage brings the classroom to students and parents

Colleen Ryan and Brittany Harris offer roving tutor sessions for both students and parents aboard their retrofitted mobile classroom. (Contributed photo)
Colleen Ryan and Brittany Harris offer roving tutor sessions for both students and parents aboard their retrofitted mobile classroom. (Contributed photo)

While teaching at Hardy Elementary School, Brittany Harris and Colleen Ryan realized that many of their students' parents were unable to visit the school, either due to a lack of transportation or other obligations. So the two teachers decided to bring the school to them.

In April 2016, Harris and Ryan bought an old mini school bus with their own money and transformed the interior into a mobile classroom.

The Passage, as it's called, officially began making rounds in November 2016.

Harris and Ryan drive the bus to students' homes and offer 30-minute sessions once a week for four weeks. In that time, they work with both students and their parents to build a notebook full of strategies, games and resources the parents can then use to help their students study.

One of the goals of The Passage is to empower parents to help their children, "because parents are the first teachers of their children," said Ryan.

Stephanie Mizutani is a mother of five and her school-age children love The Passage.

Last spring, the three oldest Mizutani children, along with one other family, worked with Harris and Ryan for two sessions, one focused on math and the other focused on science engineering, including learning to code with a robot.

"They keep asking, 'When do we get to play with the robots again?'" Mizutani said.

Harris and Ryan were prepared to work with each age group, she added. Her second- and third-grader could work on multiplication while her kindergartner worked on basic addition.

Mizutani said she appreciated how the teachers make parents work with the students so that they learn the new techniques that are being taught and understand how to work with their children.

"I think there's just something important about kids and parents working together," said Mizutani.

Like in any elementary classroom, within the bus there is a bookshelf, a map and a blackboard. There is even a TV to show educational videos.

"It's special because they come to your home, so it's a place your children feel comfortable. Plus it's exciting to be on a school bus," Mizutani said.

Ryan said it was important to her and Harris that the bus retain its wheelchair lift so the classroom is accessible to any student.

The classroom is designed for Harris' and Ryan's innovative and engaging teaching style. They always try to get the students up and moving, using games, trivia and props to make the lessons fun.

"We feel like the best way that a student is going to learn is if they're having fun and they're excited about what they're learning," said Ryan.

She said the sessions help build trust between the teacher and the students and that they see more growth in class following the out-of-school tutoring.

"Building that relationship and those connection with our students as well as community members, that's been the most rewarding and the most exciting," said Ryan.

The first year, they focused on East Chattanooga, the community surrounding Hardy Elementary. Now they have spread to the Brainerd Road area, Red Bank and Hixson, but they'll go wherever people request their help, Ryan said.

The pair works with up to two families at a time, sometimes with several siblings. They have helped students in pre-K through fifth grade, but Ryan said they can refer middle school and older students to other teachers they know.

"We want this to grow. We want to this to impact all of Chattanooga," said Ryan.

As full-time teachers - Harris now at Barger Academy and Ryan at Rivermont Elementary School - Ryan said they sometimes struggle to find the time to work on The Passage, but their biggest challenge is finding funding. The service is totally free, and they rely on grants and donations.

Ryan said she is grateful to those who have helped. Rondell Crier and students from Studio Everything transformed the bus. Smart Furniture donated tables. The Passage has also received funding from Teacherprenuer, the UNFoundation, Sankofa Fund and Junior League of Chattanooga.

"Because of the Chattanooga community empowering us and believing in us, we're able to serve the community even more," said Ryan.

The Passage accepts monetary donations through its website, The mobile classroom is also always in need of books, school supplies and maintenance help.

Call 615-775-8382 to connect with the teachers.

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