Shaw Elementary School is a neighborhood K-5th Title 1 school with 597 students. Approximately 75 to 80 percent of the students live near enough to walk to school, but they face several barriers. First, the students lack knowledge of how to safely walk to school, and there had been little parent involvement in SRTS activities. In addition, traffic speed and crime nearby make it unsafe to walk, especially in the evening and early morning. The economically disadvantaged area experiences criminal activity, and assaults have been regularly reported at the park next to the school.
Although there are some existing sidewalks, they do not form a continuous route for students, who may have to choose a route based on where sidewalks are located.
“The students need to choose wisely,” says Jason Jackman, program outreach coordinator for the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of Southern Florida.
Shaw Elementary bicycle racks were too high for students to use.
"I actually saw one child try to lift his bike onto the high racks,” Jackman notes.
Many students already walked to school because their parents were unable to drive them or walk with them. Because these children were walking by themselves to school, safety became the bigger issue. Eventually, during Shaw’s “walk to school days” some parents would show up to walk with their children.
Tracking results was another challenge. Teachers were asked to collect student tallies to evaluate student travel behavior during the year, but many teachers chose not to participate because it was not a required task. Safe Routes coordinators offered incentives for teachers to properly fill out these forms, but the results still were incomplete. Safe Routes coordinators conducted walking and bicycling observations during the beginning of the year and at the end of the school year, which helped compare results to the evaluations.
Shaw Elementary has had a high obesity rate for their students, and the school began offering only healthy choices for breakfast and lunch. The school was rated as an academic C school, and the faculty and staff hoped to improve their schools’ scores through programs like Safe Routes to School.
The Center for Urban Transportation at the University of Southern Florida received $52,210 in SRTS noninfrastructure funds from the Florida Department of Transportation to be used at five schools to teach students and parents about walking school buses and bicycle trains. In addition to Shaw Elementary, other schools that developed SRTS programs the first year were Chiles Elementary, Lewis Elementary, Hunter’s Green Elementary and Maniscalco Elementary.
“Tampa’s not known for walking to school,” Jackman says. “To walk a half mile or a mile to school, it’s kind of a new concept around here.”
Shaw Elementary held its first Walk to School Day in 2008. The school had been averaging approximately 60 student walkers a day, and on the special event there were only 50, so participants were basically the same as the daily walkers, Jackman observes.
Shaw’s SRTS program promoted walking school buses and bicycle trains to encourage parents to walk and/or bicycle with their children to school. The goal for the program was to increase walking and bicycling to school by educating students and families to promote active living.
New partnerships were formed to assist the SRTS program at Shaw Elementary. Tampa BayCycle, a local bicycle non-profit, provided free helmets for bicycling students. Safe Kids of Tampa provided pedestrian and bicycle rodeos for students at Shaw Elementary. Jackman contacted the Hillsborough County Public School system, and new bicycle racks were installed during the summer 2009. Although Shaw Elementary is primarily a walking school, the bicycle racks have encouraged a few more students to bicycle to school, Jackman says.
A local car dealership donated 100 professional baseball tickets for participating families. The City of Tampa Police Department provided bicycle police officers to monitor traffic and other potential danger areas for students, which was an important presence because of the crime at the nearby park. Officers also set up radar and caught speeders. The University bike club and athletic teams have been supportive of the school’s SRTS efforts, Jackman says.
This year, CUTR has received another SRTS award of $70,000 to enable it to work with nine schools, and Jackman sees that the program is growing.
“They’re very excited,” he says of the students who have participated in the SRTS activities. “They set themselves apart from car riders; they know they’re special.”
In addition, when he visits schools, he finds teachable moments when he talks to the students. In casual conversation, he’ll ask, “Do you know to look left, right, left?”
“It may be a single question, but that may be an educational point,” he says. “I think that’s what you have to do; you have to gradually build it.”
Hunter’s Green Elementary has both walkers and bikers, and Jackman focused on the school’s strength: bicycling. For the second year, Hunter’s Green students and families participated in the November Walk and Bike to Schools day, and the event was a huge success.
“With last year’s Safe Routes to School program, I found that you have your walking schools and your biking school; and sometimes both walkers and bikers,” Jackman adds. “I definitely think that working with school’s strengths as far as their travel modes can determine the success of increasing safe walking and biking to school.”
Jason E. Jackma
Program Outreach Coordinator for the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of Southern Florida.