The Virginia Safe Routes to School Program had become a victim of its own success. Having awarded more than fifty $1,000 mini-grants to schools across Virginia during the year preceding its call for non-infrastructure applications, the program was able to meet much of the demand for SRTS funding. While that was the goal of the mini-grant program, there was also an unintended side effect: many communities were satisfied with the smaller and more accessible mini-grants and chose not to pursue the larger non-infrastructure grants.
After his December 2012 non-infrastructure grant funding cycle yielded only four applications, Virginia’s SRTS Coordinator Rob Williams knew something had to be done. Virginia had already spent all of its SAFETEA-LU infrastructure funds, but still had non-infrastructure funds remaining. In the grant cycle, programs could request up to $100,000, with $1,000,000 available overall. The four programs that applied requested a total of $238,000; all four were fully funded.
“While I knew it was not reflective of the level of SRTS activity in Virginia, the response to that funding cycle made it clear to me that a different, more proactive, approach was needed,” Williams said.
That came in the form of a partnership with Virginia’s Department of Education (VDOE). Williams had already been working with Vanessa Wigand, the Principal Specialist for Health Education, Physical Education, Driver Education and Athletics in VDOE, to develop that partnership. In the wake of the recent funding cycle that work accelerated. Williams and Wigand devised a plan to grow SRTS programs in up to a dozen school systems—‘school divisions’ in Virginia’s parlance, ‘school districts’ in most other states—across the Commonwealth.
Established as a pilot program because it would be operating outside the normal non-infrastructure grant process, Williams and Wigand defined a set of criteria to identify school divisions that would be ripe for implementing a Safe Routes program.
It became clear that school personnel would respond more positively to an inquiry from the Department of Education than from the Department of Transportation. Wigand decided to reach out to the Health and Physical Education (HPE) Supervisors in the identified school divisions. Her outreach to 12 HPE Supervisors yielded ten applications, and, after one school division dropped out, by late spring nine school divisions agreed to hire a full- or part-time Safe Routes to School Coordinator for the year.
“The application was simple,” said Katie Mencarini, a planner with Toole Design Group, the consulting firm hired by Williams to assist with Safe Routes implementation in Virginia. “How many schools are in the division? How many of those schools would be targeted for the SRTS program? Did the division have any policies that could get in the way of implementing the program? What is the aggregate enrollment for the division? And a signed letter of support from the division superintendent.”
That simplicity made it easy for the division HPE supervisors to apply. It also made it easy for Williams to set the terms of what the local coordinators would do. In a normal grant application, the applicant would define the program it wanted to carry out. In this pilot program, Williams defined the program. The local coordinators would be required to push statewide events, like Virginia’s Student Travel Tally Week and Walk to School Day, and to bring pedestrian and bicycle education to their schools.
Having the program laid out was fine for the HPE supervisors who applied, according to Williams, especially since most were unfamiliar with Safe Routes to School. So before even beginning their local hiring processes Williams met the HPE supervisors on their own turf—VDOE’s mid-July annual physical education conference—to provide an SRTS orientation. Next the HPE supervisors hired the local coordinators, and in late August Williams presented the SRTS orientation to that group.
Now just a few months into it, the program is clearly having an impact.
“Response from the schools has been great,” Williams said, “their participation in Walk to School Day is evidence of that.”
Williams’ evidence is a 73 event increase—from 114 in 2012 to 187 in 2013—for Virginia, the largest increase for any state this year. Most of that increase came from the nine Local Program Coordinators divisions, where Walk to School Day events soared from 16 in 2012 to 107 in 2013.
More early signs of the success of the program can be seen in the results of Student Travel Tally Week. Begun by Williams in 2012, this is a designated week in September to focus on schools collecting student travel tallies. In 2012, 26 schools collected data that week. This year, 167 schools participated.
Other signs of success include more bicycle safety education in schools, the Virginia SRTS contact list exploding (in a good way), and more applications for the $1,000 Quick Start Mini Grants that schools can use to put on a Safe Routes event like Walk to School Day or a bike rodeo.
The totality of evidence points to a program that has worked to bring Safe Routes into a large number of schools, but which also underscores how difficult it can be to get schools to fully buy into SRTS ideas without a champion. As Mencarini, the Toole Design Group planner said, “We found that without a person in the school system to work on Safe Routes, or someone in the community pushing the schools to get involved, it wouldn’t get done.”
Moving forward, Williams is encouraging all nine school divisions to apply for non-infrastructure grants to keep their local program coordinators in place and expand their programs. In the meantime, he and Mencarini are planning a workshop for this winter to prepare the local coordinators for training the physical education teachers in their divisions on NHTSA’s Pedestrian Safety Training for children from kindergarten through fifth grade. And they’re expecting a lot more Bike to School Day events to be happening in Virginia in 2014.
“I have been nothing short of amazed with how quickly the new coordinators were able to get to work once they were brought on board,” Williams said. “Many of them were new to their schools and had to be oriented to the school divisions on top of learning about SRTS and what we were expecting of them. In less than a month they had their schools involved in the program and were collecting student travel tallies and organizing Walk to School Day events.
“The best part is that, even though we outlined a set of tasks for them to complete, they have the flexibility to decide how they want to accomplish those tasks. Every month I get to hear about the fun and exciting methods they come up with to get their schools to buy into SRTS and, more importantly, to get kids interested in walking and biking. This program has been a tremendous success and I look forward to continuing it for another year.”
Editor’s Note: Learn more about Virginia’s SRTS program at www.vdot.virginia.gov/programs/ted_Rt2_school_pro.asp