Q&A With Robin Schepper:

Helping Murch Elementary School Administers Envision a More Active, Safer Future

The National Center had the privilege of meeting Robin Schepper, a dedicated parent volunteer at Ben W. Murch Elementary School in Washington D.C., when the school received the 2009 James L. Oberstar Safe Routes to School Award. We caught up with Robin to ask a few questions about her experience in helping overturn the school's bicycling policy and improving overall walking and bicycling culture at Murch.

Background

Murch Elementary School was selected as the 2009 Oberstar Safe Routes to School Award recipient based on its exemplary SRTS program successes, including: reversing school policy that prohibited students from bicycling to school without special permission; building community support for walking and bicycling to school, including neighborhood support for new sidewalk construction; and implementing an effective student Safety Patrol program to enforce safe driving behavior around the school. Robin's leadership as a parent volunteer and champion of the SRTS efforts was integral to the school's successes.

Q&A Excepts from an interview Robin Schepper, Parent Volunteer

Q: How did the conversation about Murch Elementary School's bicycle policy begin?

Bicycle rack at Murch Elementary

A: Murch has a wonderful neighborhood playground that is filled with kids riding bikes on the weekends. As we started the SRTS project, we asked ourselves why kids rode their bikes to Murch on the weekends and not during the week. No one really knew why, but the non-existence of a bike rack and the lack of encouragement to bike to school was our guess as to why kids did not bike to school.

Q: Who were your greatest supporters for the effort to bring about change?

A: Our greatest supporters were the student council who raised money to install a bike rack. They did not even know about the bike policy but they knew if there was a bike rack more kids would ride to school.

Q: Can you name a particular challenge you faced in your efforts and how you creatively overcame it?

A: We did not have any particular challenges, it was more apathy and no one looking at the parent handbook rules and understanding who the decision-makers were to make the changes. I went to our school board and argued that the existing policy did not work well with our SRTS grant and that we could write a new rule that would not make Murch liable for any thefts of bikes. With the grant and the enthusiasm of the 6th grade, the Board agreed with our plans.

Q: Do you have any tips for navigating altering existing policies of your school system, community, etc.?

A: Like any project, I believe it is important to understand who the decision-makers are for a policy and understand why that policy exists, and then come up with messages that address their concerns.

In our case, we had 4 messages:

  1. The ask: Change the policy and allow us to install the bike rack.
  2. Alleviating concerns: We developed language for the parent handbook that did not make the school liable for thefts.
  3. Value message: We tried to figure out the values of the decision-makers; what do they care about? We said they could create a new policy that would improve the health of our children and alleviate the congested traffic we have around school every morning.
  4. Vision message: We helped decision-makers envision what Murch could like five years from now when more kids biked to school — its 2012 and our bike racks are filled with 100 student bikes. Students come to school more focused because they have already exercised in the morning.

New sidewalk construction near Murch Elementary School.

Q: What advice could you provide to individuals working to create an environment and infrastructure that makes it safer for kids to walk and bicycle to school?

A: I think a key is to get support from kids and parents, as well as expanding into your community. We reached out to senior centers in our neighborhood because they face the same barriers as students do walking in our neighborhood - speeding traffic, pedestrian lights that change too quickly and the lack of traffic lights on high volume streets.

I also think developing a vision for the school is great because parents and administrators can focus on what the school could look like and understand the benefits of more exercise.

Q: What do you see as your team's greatest achievement with this project/initiative?

A: There are so many. The best is seeing more kids walking and biking to school and my other favorite is our School Safety Patrol — these dedicated kids are out in the rain, in the snow and in the cold making sure their student buddies get into school safely. They take their responsibilities very seriously. And since we created 'tickets' for cars that park in our drop off zones, the kids have really learned that adults need to follow the rules as much as kids. You should see their faces when they get to place a ticket on a car that is parked illegally. They know they are right and it's an opportunity to teach an adult about safety.

Thanks to Robin for taking the time to share about her SRTS experiences.

If you'd like to hear more about to address overcoming such barriers and developing policies that promote bicycling and walking, view a recording of a recent webinar on the topic. (More information below.)

Also, check out relevant tip sheets in the National Center's Resource Center: School Bicycling and Walking Policies: Addressing Policies that Hinder and Implementing Policies that Help and 10 Tips for Safe Routes to School Programs and Liability.

This is the second installment of a new "Q&A With:" column of the newsletter. If there is an inspirational person/program in your community that you would like us to consider profiling in a future issue, e-mail Caroline Dickson.