Walking School Bus Program Helps Move a Neighborhood Forward in Springfield, Mass.

The back-to-school season this year has led to a media spotlight on how children get to school, particularly how they can walk to school safely.

Chicago, where elementary school closings led to 13,000 students being assigned to new schools, has drawn national attention from the likes of The New York Times, CBS News and NPR for its “Safe Passage” program to promote safe walking for students.

Across the country, from the outskirts of Houston, Texas, to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, from Vallejo, Calif., to Port Washington, Wis., and from Pueblo, Colo., to Bangor, Maine, articles in local newspapers remind drivers to be mindful of the children returning to school and suggest that parents form walking school buses for their children.

Earlier this summer, even First Lady Michelle Obama referred to walking school buses in a speech at the White House to a conference of mayors. Once a little known curiosity, the walking school bus is going mainstream as a solution to many different problems, from childhood obesity to unsafe streets.

One place where a walking school bus addressed a host of community issues is the Brightwood neighborhood of Springfield, Mass. The Brightwood Elementary School Walking School Bus program was so successful, in fact, that it spurred a city-wide task force and earned special recognition from the James L. Oberstar Safe Routes to School Award Committee in 2012.

The story of how the Brightwood Walking School Bus played a role, along with a unique community policing initiative, in turning around a community is a remarkable one, and the story begins with knowing a little something about the history of that community.

* * * * *

Clustered in the narrow middle of a crescent of land along the Connecticut River, the Brightwood neighborhood has been separated from the rest of Springfield since the north-south Springfield-Holyoke Railroad Line was laid in the 1840s. Construction of the Interstate 91 raised highway parallel to the rail track in the 1960s added to Brightwood’s isolation.

Its riverfront location, which might be an attraction in some cities, has been no boon to Brightwood. The neighborhood was wiped out by the Connecticut River Flood of 1936, and was still digging out from the three feet of mud left behind when the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 brought more flooding and wiped it out again. A tall floodwall built in response blocks the neighborhood’s view of the river and limits access to the Connecticut River Walk and Bikeway linear park which opened in 2008.

Today the residential streets feature the triple-decker multi-family houses built after the floods, mixed in with small ranches and raised ranches. Of the 1,500 homes in the neighborhood of 3,900 people, 86 percent are rentals. In the middle of the neighborhood sits Brightwood Elementary School, a handsome red brick structure boasting architectural details that show the care that went into its design and construction in 1898.

Brightwood Elementary School, Springfield, Mass.

The children who attend Brightwood Elementary are almost all from the neighborhood—97 percent live within a mile of the school. Eighty-six percent of them are Hispanic, and English is a second language for 44 percent of the students. In the last few decades the neighborhood has become a center for the city’s Puerto Rican community, with 80 percent of the homes now occupied by Puerto Rican families.  In 2009 the median family income in the neighborhood was $19,247, 96 percent of the students’ families were categorized as low income, and 45 percent of families in the neighborhood lived below the poverty level.

Outside the school, the North End of Springfield, where the Brightwood neighborhood is located, had the highest rates of violent crime in the city. According to a New York Times article, gang members and drug dealers cruised the streets on motor scooters carrying SKS semiautomatic rifles in broad daylight, and gunfire erupted almost daily. Residents were hesitant to walk on the sidewalks, get to know their neighbors, or let their children play outside, Karen Pohlman, the nurse practitioner who started the Brightwood Walking School Bus, wrote in 2012.

Before the neighborhood could have Safe Routes—before Safe Routes was even a twinkle in Karen Pohlman’s eye—the neighborhood would have to have safer streets.

* * * * *

How the streets became safer is a story of its own, and one told already by national media, including The New York Times and 60 Minutes. The quick version is that two Massachusetts state troopers back from a Green Beret deployment in Iraq thought that the counter-insurgency methods they had taught to the police force in an Iraqi town would work to counter gang violence in western New England’s most populous city. They started the C3 (Counter Criminal Continuum) initiative, an intense community policing program. As part of the effort, they began holding weekly community meetings. And that’s where Karen Pohlman comes in.

Pohlman is a family nurse practitioner and community program manager at Baystate Brightwood Health Center, where she works with children from Brightwood Elementary. In addition to the other challenges facing the neighborhood, Pohlman identified childhood obesity as a health care crisis for the school children. She also found that of students living within a mile of the school, more than 90 percent were being driven to school.

Pohlman learned about the C3 community meetings in 2010 and began attending and sharing her concerns about childhood obesity in the neighborhood.

“(The leaders) challenged me to come up with a health initiative that would impact safety. And of course as a healthcare provider I was thinking health as well, and the Brightwood principal at that point really wanted attendance and learning capacity impacted. So I did some brainstorming and came up with this,” Pohlman told The Republican newspaper in May.

What she came up with—before knowing anything about Safe Routes to School, mind you—was a Walking School Bus program with six goals: (1) daily exercise to aid in reducing childhood obesity, (2) increased safety for the children and the neighborhood, (3) decreased school absenteeism and tardiness, (4) increased learning capacity, (5) reduced carbon footprint around the school, and (6) community engagement.

At the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year, Pohlman and the principal at the time, Shalimar Colon, identified a highly visible walking route less than a mile long. They created an easy-to-read map in English and Spanish that showed the walking school bus route and the pick-up locations. They printed the map on flyers sent home with the Brightwood Elementary students. And they asked teachers to volunteer to lead the walking school bus.

“Principal Colon and I were the first to lead the walking school bus, and we had an initial response of six to ten children walking to school every morning,” Pohlman recalled. “Soon, there was a small group of teachers that were dedicated to leading the walking school bus Monday through Friday, and our student participation numbers increased. By the end of the first year, we had maintained our initial route every morning and had approximately 40 to 50 students participating consistently.”

The Brightwood Elementary School Walking School Bus.

In 2011, Pohlman learned about Safe Routes to School and began talking with Catherine King, the Massachusetts Safe Routes to School Outreach Coordinator at the time.

“She offered support, guidance, education and training,” Pohlman said. “It was a relief for me to learn about the abundance of resources available to aid in streamlining, sustaining and growing my Walking School Bus program.”

For the 2011-2012 school year, Pohlman marshaled those resources to expand the program to three walking school bus routes, all still led by teachers, and participation increased to 130 students. Some of that increase was also due to attention from parents.

“At the beginning of the year, parents had already been inquiring about the program, asking if it was starting up again,” Pohlman said. ”Instead of having to explain the program to the families of our community, parents were spreading the word!”

Some of those parents, who had only occasionally walked with the group the previous year, began to walk with the children regularly, and local community leaders would sometimes join in. Local businesses also took notice.

“Due to the highly visible route and group of children consistently walking in the rain, sun or snow, three local businesses recognized our efforts and donated to the children participating in the program,” Pohlman said.

Those donations included items to help the children ward off the elements: large umbrellas for rainy days, and scarves and mittens for cold days.

By the end of the school year, Pohlman was seeing a positive change in the neighborhood.

“Last year, our community residents and leaders were talking about high crime rates, shootings, drug violence and gangs,” Pohlman wrote in 2012. “There was quite a bit of resistance to joining any programs that potentially involved outdoor activity in the neighborhood. Our messages of ‘safety in numbers’ and ‘more community visibility outside computes to less crime’ have disseminated across our urban city neighborhood. The ‘wait, watch and see’ attitude has been replaced by ‘join in’!"

That “join in” attitude soon spread among city leaders, due in part, Pohlman said, to “low costs and high impact.” Pohlman leveraged interest in the program to organize a city-wide Walking School Bus Task Force (now called the Springfield Safe Routes to School Alliance), whose goal is to bring walking school bus programs to all of Springfield’s elementary schools. The dozen or so partner organizations in the Alliance represent a wide range of public agencies, from health, housing, youth and employment to planning, transportation, schools and police. The goal of the Alliance has since been incorporated into Springfield’s Mass in Motion initiative, a program to promote wellness and to prevent overweight and obesity with particular focus on the importance of healthy eating and physical activity.

Meanwhile, several public spotlights have shone on the Brightwood Walk School Bus. The mayor and superintendent of schools presented the program an award in March 2012. Local television stations have featured the program on their news shows. And the program has gotten nods in those aforementioned New York Times and 60 Minutes pieces.

In August 2012, attention came from the Safe Routes community when Brightwood Elementary was one of three programs chosen for special recognition for the James L. Oberstar Safe Routes to School Award. The award committee was impressed that the program successfully addressed challenges of childhood obesity, neighborhood safety, absenteeism and tardiness, and that it had become a model for other area schools that want to make positive community changes with few resources.

Samantha Fonseca-Moreira, then Massachusetts SRTS Statewide Coordinator, presented the special recognition award at a ceremony during Brightwood Elementary’s Walk and Bike to School Day on May 1, 2013.

“It’s great to see that a grassroots initiative can turn itself into a community movement through the work of champions who are looking to make their community a safer place for children to walk and bicycle to school,” Fonseca-Moreira said.

For Lillian Antoine, whose two children attend Brightwood Elementary, the program has made a big difference.

“For parents who go to work it’s a concern—is your child going to get to school safe and are they going to get there on time—you worry about that. So I’m glad this program came about,” she told The Republican newspaper at that May event. “Kids come together, and they get to know who they are and it becomes a safe environment to walk together in groups. It’s really helpful. It’s impacted the neighborhood greatly.”

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