Seven Oaks, SC: School staff make long-term changes in student travel patterns

Introduction

Leaphart Elementary School has achieved remarkable participation in walk- and bike-to-school events since 2005, but in 2011 school staff was ready to take their SRTS program a step further. Each year, students and parents turn out for every SRTS international, national, and statewide walking and biking event in droves. Yet, in the days following the event, walking rates trickle down to a handful of students, and biking often stops altogether. In the fall of 2011, school staff took action to sustain enthusiasm for walking and biking and to create long-term changes in student travel patterns.

Activities

Leaphart Elementary School’s SRTS program takes the Encouragement “E” of the 5 E’s seriously. Events have featured marching bands, cheerleaders, and student athletes walking with groups of students to the school. School staff has also learned to take advantage of the park that adjoins the rear boundary of the school campus by publicizing it as a park-and-walk site. Using the park this way makes participation in biking and walking events feasible for almost every student.  Beyond using the park for special events, however, most parents did not use this park-and-walk site on a regular basis.  By the 2011-2012 school year, it became clear that Leaphart Elementary School students and families enjoy the events but needed extra help to make walking to and from school part of their normal routine.

In early 2012, a new coach at the school wanted to increase the number of students walking and biking to school and requested a walk audit from the Resource Center to evaluate the SRTS situation at Leaphart. With help from the Midlands School Outreach Coordinator, the walk audit took place in February 2012, and involved school staff, parents, the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT), the Lexington County Sheriff’s department, and the Central Midlands Council of Government. The purpose of the walk audit was to explore potential safe routes within a few blocks of the school campus, and to identify challenges and opportunities for students walking and biking to school.

The participants first evaluated the existing connections between the park and the school. There is a well-maintained, paved trail that connects the school and the park. The site has become a popular park-and-walk site for walking and biking encouragement events. During the walk audit, participants noted that while some parents know about the site, there are many more that are likely unaware of the connection between the park and the school. Some walk audit participants shared that they had concerns about the lack of adult supervision along the trail between the park and the school. During walk to school events, there are school staff members stationed in the park and numerous parent volunteers leading walking groups, but that is not the case during the rest of the school year. To address parents’ concerns about students using the trail unsupervised, it was recommended that the school designate staff monitors to supervise walkers and bicyclists at the rear of the school where it meets the trail to the park. 

The walk audit also evaluated connections between the park and the surrounding neighborhoods. Students should be able to walk or bike to school, as many of them live within approximately one mile of school. One mile is considered a comfortable walking distance and an easy bike distance for most students in elementary school. One worn path or “goat trail” was identified as a potential formal connection between the park and one of the neighborhood streets. Participants agreed that if the path was upgraded to improve accessibility for all users, the connection could increase the number of students walking and biking to school.

Finally, the walk audit moved to the front of the school where they observed several sections of the sidewalk were in a state of disrepair. Rebuilding critical sections of the sidewalk would make the walking route more accessible and more attractive for students to use.

Milestones

One of the most effective outcomes of the walk audit is the newly rebuilt sections of sidewalk located in front of the school, completed by SCDOT. This engineering project was achieved without a grant or donation. While participating in the walk audit, SCDOT staff saw the interest and the need for improved sidewalks and was able to identify resources to rebuild key sections.  Final design and construction were completed before the start of the 2013-2014 school year.

Building on the success of the sidewalk reconstruction project, the SRTS program at Leaphart Elementary School has shifted some of its focus towards improving and formalizing pedestrian and bicycle network connections between the park and the surrounding neighborhoods. School staff are hopeful that park staff and SCDOT can work together to build new paved trails that will enable and encourage students to make the trek to their school from their doorsteps completely on-foot. Based on a strong relationship with the park and SCDOT, school staff is confident that the improvements can be implemented in the not-so-distant future.

During the fall of 2013, school staff made a greater effort to advertise the park as a park-and-walk site for the event. Many parents, who had not participated before did so recognizing the convenience of the park-and-walk site. Over 100 students walked from the park accompanied by several parent volunteers. Staff greeted the students and their parents at the rear of the school campus, where the teachers made a point to tell parents that they would continue to greet students at this location throughout the year. Now more than 20 students use the park as a sanctioned cut-through. They are joined by several parents on a regular basis.  School staff is encouraged by this increase in the number of students who regularly walk to school. Students are excited to walk with groups just like they do during walking and biking events, and parents are pleased with the increase in adult supervision.

In an effort to sustain the momentum sparked by the annual walking and biking events, Leaphart Elementary School is planning monthly walking events. School staff has noticed that students and their parents enjoy the social aspect of walking and biking to school. School staff has been considering seasonal themes to build excitement and hopes to launch the first monthly event during the spring semester of the 2013-2014 school year.