Flagstaff, Arizona: Walking School Bus “takes back” a local park

Introduction

Thomas Elementary School was one of three schools that benefited from the $39,000 federal SRTS noninfrastructure award that the Coconino County Health Department received in 2007 from the Arizona  Department of Transportation for its “Walk, Bike Get Fit” program.

Thomas Elementary is a neighborhood school with 530 students , and approximately 33 percent are Native American. Only two buses bring students to school, and approximately 70 percent of the school’s students could walk to school if parents allowed them to, says Kim Austin, SRTS Coordinator for Coconino County Health Department. The school serves a predominantly low income population and obesity is an issue.

Students at Thomas face several challenges to walking to school: Bushmaster Park, which is adjacent to the school, has had crime and vagrant issues, and sidewalks were not included in the neighborhoods when houses were built in the late 1940s and 1950s. Weather is also a challenge because the City of Flagstaff receives an average of 120 inches of snowfall each year.

Safety was the primary barrier to parents and faculty encouraging their children and students to walk or bike to school. Bushmaster Park is in the middle of the school boundary, forcing most children to walk through the park to get to and from school. This park has become home to many criminal activities including drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness and gang activity. To address these issues the Bushmaster Neighborhood Committee was developed. The collaboration included the Safe Routes to School Coordinator, the Thomas School Principal, concerned parents and residents, Flagstaff Police Department, POST (Parks, Open Space and Trails), Sunnyside Neighborhood Association, Flagstaff Parks and Recreation, Flagstaff city Mayor Sara Pressler, and local businesses.

Activities

With its portion of the $39,000 SRTS non-infrastructure award and additional funding from New Belgium Brewing Co. and Safe Kids World Wide Thomas Elementary made significant progress. The “Bushmaster Neighborhood Committee” began to meet monthly at the start of the 2008/2009 school year and asked police to increase foot and car patrols through the park when students were walking. Next, the committee established a walking school bus (WSB) route that included several stops, three of them in the park. It created “Walking Wednesdays” to encourage all the students to participate, including those who had to walk through the park. The walking school bus began on April 1, 2009, with 15 students and numerous volunteers and city officials, and parents and students felt safer with supervision and added police visibility.

Twice a year, the SRTS coordinator teaches in-class lessons to third through sixth graders on subjects ranging from pedestrian and bicycle safety to evaluating one’s eco-footprint. In addition to the lessons, the SRTS coordinator maintains a mileage club competition, coordinates the Walking School Bus, International Walk to School Day and Bike to School Day. She works with Flagstaff Biking Organization and Safe Kids Coconino County (SKCC) to provide bicycle rodeos to Flagstaff area schools, as well as attends monthly meetings for SKCC, City of Flagstaff Pedestrian Advisory Committee, Bushmaster Neighborhood Committee and Kinsey Community School site council.

Milestones

The Bushmaster Neighborhood Committee began the task of reclaiming its park. Alcohol consumption there had led to broken glass in the park, and the committee sought a “No Sales 40” initiative, which banned the sale of 40-ounce glass bottles of alcohol around the park. More than 50 businesses signed supporting petitions, and it was supported by the City of Flagstaff Parks and Recreation. The City Council decided that all parks should be considered with the “No alcohol consumption” issue when it is discussed. A local business owner offered free retail space to the police department for a police sub-station on the southwest end of the Bushmaster area neighborhood, which gave police added visibility and increased response time, easing safety concerns of neighborhood residents and business owners. The Flagstaff City Council in August 2009 adopted a city-wide bicycle helmet ordinance for children.

Students, parents and teachers have provided feedback about the program, and Austin plans to give students a walkability checklist before spring break 2010 and before the spring Walking School Bus starts because students sometimes identify barriers that adults may not notice. Some parents will also fill out the checklist to gather more parent input. For other communities beginning SRTS programs, Austin recommends, “Find partners!”

Contact

Kim Austin
SRTS Coordinator for Coconino County