Brattleboro, Vermont: Changing the "drive to school" culture

Introduction

Since 2006, the number of walking school buses at Green Street School in Brattleboro, Vermont, has more than tripled, thanks to parents’ steady support of Safe Routes to School.

“The biggest barrier we faced and still face is the culture of driving kids to school,” said Alice Charkes, SRTS coordinator for Green Street School and a high school French teacher. “Most folks think it’s faster to drive to school and more convenient.” She believes that is primarily a perception rather than a reality.

Green Street is one of three elementary schools in Brattleboro. Located within a quarter-mile of downtown Brattleboro, the school has 265 students from kindergarten through sixth grade. Forty-eight percent of students are eligible for free or reduced rate lunches. Approximately 200 students live within a 2-mile radius of the school, and six regular bus routes carry 65 students to school each day. Parents’ primary concerns were traffic speed and volume on Green Street.

Activities

In July 2006, Green Street received an $18,000 non-infrastructure Federal SRTS grant, and in May 2008 received another $6,975 grant. Upon receiving the first grant, 25 parents immediately volunteered for the SRTS program and regularly led walking school buses, rode bicycles to school with children and handed out “I walked/biked to school today!” stickers at the school doorway.

Charkes believes that the timing of the school’s 2006 SRTS grant coincided with a willingness to change.

“I think the school was at a stage where it was ready,” she said. “It has been moving in a direction little by little to incorporate healthy lifestyles in lots of different ways. Safe Routes is considered an integral part of how the school works.”

The school has a health action committee that finds ways to highlight nutrition and activity. “(Parents) have grabbed on to the energy,” Charkes said.

She worked with a graphic designer to develop ads to remind motorists to “Please drive the speed limit” and “Stop for pedestrians in crosswalks.” The ads ran in Brattleboro Reformer and The Commons for two months in fall 2008. “These are the primary issues people complain about,” she said. In the winter, an ad reminds people to shovel sidewalks, and in the spring, the ads will highlight trimming hedges. The ads were funded by SRTS, the Safe Kids Coalition, and the Brattleboro Area Bicycle and Pedestrian Coalition.
 

Milestones

Traffic data shows the campaign dramatically reduced the number of cars exceeding the 25 mph speed limit in the morning, from 59 percent to 21 percent. In addition, the number of walking school buses has increased steadily: from three in 2006, to eight in 2007 and 11 in 2008. SRTS funding provided equipment for 5th and 6th grade safety patrol leaders who were trained in 2008. They meet students who are dropped off at the top of Green Street and walk with them the remaining distance to school to help alleviate traffic and encourage walking.

Other aspects of the program include Walking and Wheeling Wednesdays in October that saw a 100 percent increase in participation, a Winter Walkers club that encourages participation during the cold dark winter months. Eighty children walked or biked at least once over the 58 days. Winter Walkers represents 30 percent of the student body.

In the first year of the program, Charkes taught BikeSmart and held bicycle rodeos, and her workshops reached 150 children, or 60 percent of the students at Green Street School. The second year, she added WalkSmart lessons and reached 90 percent of the student population.

SRTS has been integrated SRTS into the school’s Finding Fitness Fundraiser, which challenges students to raise their fitness levels over the course of four weeks each fall, as well as several other health initiatives. The program was also linked to TV/Screen Turn-Off Week, during which the school hosted a bicycling or walking event for one night. Participation in International Walk to School Day has grown from 133 students in 2006 to 215 in 2008.

Charkes measures progress with class tallies, parent surveys, punch cards and participant counts. She says that progress comes from one parent and one child at a time, and that those incremental increases add up.

“The numbers are going up,” Charkes said. “It’s slow and steady.”

Green Street School’s SRTS team consists of the school principal, staff, the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO), the head crossing guard, the Brattleboro Public Works director, the police department and a Windham Regional Commission planner. Other support has come from Brattleboro Memorial Hospital and the Vermont Bicycle & Pedestrian Coalition. Charkes communicates regularly with the town manager, the Selectboard, the traffic safety committee and state legislators.

Story WalkTM Meets Multiple Goals

What could be better than linking literacy and exercise in a way that families can participate whenever they find a few spare moments together?

That’s just what happens in Story WalkTM, a project in Vermont where pages from books are posted along a short route to encourage children and adults to walk together to read a complete story.

In 2007, Anne Ferguson, a public health specialist in chronic disease, developed the idea of Story WalkTM in collaboration with the Vermont Bicycle & Pedestrian Coalition and the Kellogg-Hubbard Library.

Ferguson, a volunteer for Vermont Bicycle & Pedestrian Coalition, had heard a co-worker mention that she’d seen children writing a story on a sidewalk, and Ferguson began brainstorming. She developed the idea of walking and reading a story, page by page, and she found others in the community to help her with Story WalkTM.

Organizers checked with the Vermont State Library to ensure they abided by copyright laws. For each Story WalkTM, they purchase three copies of a book; they separate the pages, mount them on card stock and laminate them so that they can be stapled to a post. Each posted page is approximately 40 adult paces away from the next, with a total walk of a half mile or so. After a Story WalkTM is installed, organizers typically leave them in place for about two weeks along with a guest book for participants to sign and leave comments.

The cost of the project has been minimal. Ferguson first obtained a $250 grant from the Vermont Humanities Council to buy the books and materials for the signs.

“We’re doing this on a shoestring,” says Nancy Schulz of the Vermont Bicycle & Pedestrian Coalition. The project also was awarded a larger grant of $4,400 from Blue Cross/Blue Shield. Organizers have been publicizing Story WalkTM at library conferences and recreational conferences and are in the process of trade- marking the idea because they want to ensure that the concept will be available to communities for free.

In the first year, organizers have created Story WalksTM with 12 books targeted for children in second to seventh grades. Kellogg-Hubbard Library staff have helped to suggest books, which have on occasion been translated into French by the senior center and Spanish by the area high school’s Spanish class. “Our hope is to involve all kinds of languages,” Schulz says.

Each of the Story WalkTM kits can be checked out from the library. Thirty Vermont communities have participated, as well as 20 communities outside of Vermont.

“What’s been phenomenal, and what we didn’t expect, is how popular Story WalkTM has been with adults,” Schulz says.

For more information, e-mail storywalkvt@yahoo.com.

Contact

Alice Charkes, SRTS Coordinator for Green Street School
Phone: 802-254-2961
E-Mail: acharkes@verizon.net