Gone is the vintage chewing gum under the seats. So is the massive nest of angry wasps below the roof – as well as much of the roof itself, peeled back to open up the drive-by view for school-age passengers.
In its recent conversion, more of an upgrade, really, the decommissioned 1988 school bus has rebooted and rebranded as an open-air mobile classroom for students to learn about Houston’s history, starting on the streets of their own neighborhoods.
Think of the info imparted to students as “micro-history,” says R.W. McKinney, who as Mister McKinney’s Historic Houston has been presenting local tales of yore at local schools for about 15 years.
He’s trying to instill a love of history in young people — and perhaps inspire the next generation of preservation-minded Houstonians. Or at least ones more aware of the city’s origins and evolution.
Taking the lessons to the streets in the customized bus is a way to make history awareness more interactive, more real, he says. The trip’s narrative strives “to humanize the buildings” by sharing stories of who built them or lived in them and what came before. “I want kids to connect with the everyday history around them,” he says.
The drive-by lesson format allows them to view their neighborhood differently and to apply what learn about local history to their Texas or U.S. history classes. Basically, the ride brings about having “an appreciation for the past, their past,” he says.
Launched the week before Hurricane Harvey, the Houston History Bus is a project of Mister McKinney’s Historic Houston. The rolling classroom is a free program for teachers and students. It’s intended to be an educational tool, not a tour, he says.
Harvard Elementary School pupils have been early adopters of the opportunity to hear about their Heights haunts. On a jaunt earlier this month, they were especially intrigued by Heights street names’ back stories and the firehouse, says its principal, Laura Alaniz.
“Children learn by attaching information to what they know,” she says. Lessons on the road are a novel way to do so.
Leader neighborhoods have many tales to tell, McKinney says. Before the many subdivisions were platted, there were the bayous, small farms, saw mills, woods, railroad lines, small factories and early settlements by various immigrant groups.
Wheels on the Bus
Before its recent do-over, the mid-size bus had an unremarkable history of its own, though not local. It held 24 to 28 students when it served Dallas ISD and it had been sold a decade ago or so to a Houston-area private bus company.
In addition to opening up the bus roof, the $3,000 conversion reduced the seating a tad to accommodate McKinney’s podium, built-in cooler, flat-screen television for presenting archival images of “then and now” and a double sound system.
Ironically, the open air design meant removing the vehicle’s two air conditioning systems.
While the bus had been cared for, upgrades for back-to-school uses meant new brakes, shock absorbers and a water pump—standard tweaks for an aging bus, he says. Three new batteries ran down, however, in the process of diagnosing the apparent short in the electrical system.
The bus purchase, transformation and licensing has been a GoFundMe effort with an initial goal of $8,600. There’s an ongoing wish list of further improvements, such as installing a new radiator. A retractable roof would be awesome to have some day, given Houston’s steamy weather, he says.
“When you’re on a budget, you do the best you can,” he says.
Meanwhile, the bus rolls at 10 to 15 miles per hour with its own driver and mechanic on board. “Always,” he says.
Teachers seeking info about school tours can find Mister McKinney’s Historic Houston on Facebook.
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