Maricopa County Department of Public Health- Office of Health Promotion and Education in 2008 began working with Griffith Elementary School on “Walk n-Rollers,” a Safe Routes to School program to address parent concerns about traffic, speeding and safety as students walk and bicycle to school. Griffith is a neighborhood school with about 650 students, more than half of whom live within a quarter mile of the school. The school population is predominantly low income, and obesity issues are a concern.
“Traffic and speeding are a huge problem in the area,” says Ashley Barinka, Program-Health Educator for the Maricopa County Department of Public Health. “Busy streets, a major freeway, and the airport are in that area. Safety was also listed as big concern that prevented parents from wanting their children to walk to school.”
Surveyed parents also reported concerns about high crime areas and sexual offenders living close by.
In 2008, MCDPH was awarded $43,958 in SRTS non-infrastructure funds from the Arizona DOT to be used for education and encouragement activities. The Department also contributed in-kind staff time, which was substantial, according to Toby Urvater, Program Director for the Office of Health Promotion and Education for the Maricopa County Department of Public Health.
“Due to budget cuts in transportation, many of our students were no longer able to ride the bus to school,” Griffith Principal Alexis Wilson says. “Many parents were driving their children to school or children were walking unattended. Walk-n-Rollers gave parents an alternative option that not only provided health benefits, but contributed to a better environment and increased safety awareness.”
The main goal of the Walk-n-Rollers program at Griffith Elementary was to increase the number — and safety of students walking and biking to and from school. Different activities and events were held throughout the school year, including International Walk to School Day, a Bike Rodeo, Safety Booths at school and community events, the Golden Sneaker Award, and educational sessions. A Walking School Bus was also created.
The International Walk to School Day had strong participation of students, parents, school staff, and the community and was followed by a school assembly where students learned about walking and biking safety and heard the Safety Patrol Band perform. The event kicked off the Safe Routes to School program. MCDPH provided and staffed a safety booth at Griffith’s Winter Fest Family Night in December and Balsz Pride Day in March. A Golden Sneaker Award was created as an incentive for students. An old sneaker was painted gold and mounted as a trophy and was awarded to the class who had the most walker and biker participants during the week of Student Arrival and Departure Tallies. To increase sustainability, a step-bystep Safe Routes to School Resource Guide was developed. It was provided to each school liaison and contains information on all the different events and activities that can be incorporated into the program as well as contacts and examples of letters and fliers.
MCDPH produced monthly Safe Routes to School newsletters for Griffith Elementary to make sure parents were aware of upcoming events. A Phoenix police officer presented safety information at a Bike Rodeo in February, and more than 70 students were fitted with new bike helmets and were given bike locks.
To address parents concerns, MCDPH implemented a Walking School Bus where students could walk with responsible adults. MCDPH worked closely with the parent group, the school administration, and the City of Phoenix to create walkability maps, which indicate the safest routes to walk and bike to and from school.
The preparation and creation of a coalition, maps, schedules, routes, and identifying volunteers took significant time. A group of dedicated parents volunteered as “Bus Drivers” and walked with the students to school every morning for six weeks until summer break. Students who walked 20 days received a small prize. Approximately 50 students consistently walked with the Walking School Bus every morning, and new students tried it out regularly.
MCDPH worked with parents to identify what would entice them to volunteer and enjoy the Walking School Bus. MCDPH provided them with visors and water bottles because the hot weather was one of their concerns. Once the volunteers became comfortable in “driving” the school bus each morning, they wanted more students to try it, and MCDPH provided small incentives for the students after they walked for a certain number of days.
The Walking School Bus program was successful because MCDPH encouraged and motivated parents. After parents saw the opportunities of the program, they embraced it and made it their own. As parents from other schools saw the volunteers in their designated uniforms and the groups walking every morning, excitement grew. Other schools are looking forward to beginning the program.
New signage, flex curbing, and crosswalk and speed zone signs have been installed at Griffith, and there are plans for police officers to educate and enforce the new signage. The school also opened two lanes to reduce the congestion of traffic on the street, and Principal Alexis Wilson reports improvement.
A key to the success of the program has been a supportive school administration and parent volunteers Urvater and Barinka agree.
“The walking school bus would not still be up and ‘walking’ successfully if they had not taken ownership of the program,” Barinka says.
Throughout its work with Griffith, MCDPH successfully established a relationship with the rest of the schools in the Balsz School District and will be expanding the Safe Routes to School program in the 2009 – 2010 school year to the entire district, Urvater says.
Getting buy-in from the school is critical, she notes, and so is supporting and organizing the parent group.
“Having the buy in from the school and a school liaison who champions the program has helped immensely with success,” Urvater says. “We had a very strong group.”
Program Director for the Office of Health Promotion and Education
Department of Public Health
Program-Health Educator for the Maricopa County Department of Public Health