All aboard the walking school bus!

by Jessica Vargas on October 6, 2016

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Schmitt Elementary debuts their walking school bus in time for Walk to School Day!

Walk to School Day was this past Wednesday and schools all over the world have been eagerly planning events with the goal of encouraging students and their families to walk to school. One of the easiest strategies to achieve this is a walking school bus.  A walking school bus is a group of children walking to school with one or more adults, which can be as simple as two families taking turns walking their kids to school in the morning. Many schools have chosen to organize their own walking school bus programs supervised by teachers, staff, or parents to make it easier, safer, and more enjoyable for students to walk to school together on a more regular basis.

Schmitt Elementary School, located in the Ruby Hill neighborhood of Denver, has decided to hold a walking school bus every Friday, with a bonus event planned for International Walk to School Day on Wednesday, October 5th. WalkDenver was recently invited to join Schmitt Elementary students and teachers on their first ever walking school bus on Friday, September 30th.  Led by teacher Drew Weisel, a group of students, teachers, and one very happy dog set out together on the two-block route from nearby Ruby Hill Park. Mr. Weisel was kind enough to talk to WalkDenver’s Jessica Vargas about the program and shared the following thoughts that will hopefully inspire other schools to adopt their own regular walking school bus.

How did the idea for a walking school bus program come about? Why did you choose to take the lead on the project?

I wish I could take credit for the idea of a walking school bus, but the concept has been growing in popularity for a number of years now, including here in Denver. I chose to take the lead on starting a walking school bus program here at Schmitt because I know the tremendous benefits it can have on our students and our community. For example, studies have shown that children who walk to school are able to concentrate better than students who are driven or take the school bus. Plus, students who walk are able to describe their neighborhood in greater detail than students who predominantly experience their neighborhood from inside a vehicle. There are attendance benefits, environmental benefits, financial benefits, and so much more. In fact, the primary goal of Denver Public School’s Denver 2020 plan is for a great school in every neighborhood. To me that means our students should be able to safely walk, or roll, to school. And that’s why I decided to start a walking school bus here at Schmitt.

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Who was involved in the planning and how has the school administration shown support?

There are actually a number of folks responsible for bringing a walking school bus to Schmitt, including our parent-family liaison Leah Jackson, school social worker Beth Crance, Denver’s Safe Routes to School Coordinator Ashley Frederick, and Denver’s pedestrian planner David Pulsipher. The school administration, including our principal Jesse Tang, have been incredibly supportive! They have stayed late for meetings and given us the freedom to run (or walk) with our ideas.

How did you get the word out to parents? Have you had a lot of communication or questions from them regarding what a walking school bus is and how to participate?

Initially, I presented the idea to our PTO President and she invited me to speak at an upcoming parent meeting. From there we drafted flyers to send home with the students, and we leveraged the buzz around already established events like International Walk to School Day on October 5th. And finally, we welcomed many folks in the community to walk with us, including our friends at WalkDenver! We have had a fair amount of questions from the community about what a walking school bus is, and I’ve had to explain a few times that there isn’t actually a bus (unless you count the cardboard cutout the students carry as we walk). We had a strong turnout for our first walking school bus last Friday, but I believe once parents see that we can get their students to school in a safe, healthy, and timely manner, and that they can have that time back to themselves, we’ll have many more of them wanting to participate.

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How did you plan the route(s)?

Right now we have one route that we created by looking at a map of students who live within a 1-mile radius (virtually all of them do), and a 1/2-mile radius, of our school. From there we looked at where the highest concentrations of students were and planned our route accordingly. We also considered safety, distance, and amount of time it would take for students to walk in our route planning. We would love to add more routes in the future as folks start to realize the benefits of a walking school bus program.

Do you plan to see if more kids walk to school (on any school day) as a result of the walking school bus program?

I track the number of students who participate in the walking school bus program, and on International Walk to School Day we are planning on having students who walk sign a banner, as well as give out raffle tickets to students and parents who walk for a chance to win prizes. There are students who walk to school outside of the walking school bus, but I’m unaware of any sort of tracking measures, other than the school staff observations as they greet students in the morning when they arrive. I can tell you that during our first walking school bus we ran into a mother loading her children into a car to take them to school. When I told her we would be happy to ensure her children get to school safely, the relief on her face made this whole program worthwhile. Oh, and the kids loved it too!

Interested in starting a walking school bus at your neighborhood school?  Check out the Walking School Bus Guide!

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