Northeast Elementary School began a Safe Routes to School (SRTS) program five years ago that utilizes the generosity of the community — and the creativity of the school staff — to provide incentives to encourage students to walk to school.
All the schools in Waltham are neighborhood schools, and although some have sidewalks, there are gaps in the connections. Many of the sidewalks are dangerous due to tree roots disturbing the pavement. At Northeast Elementary, 33 percent of the 450 students are on free or reduced lunches and approximately 15 percent live within a mile of the school and could walk to school if parents would allow it. A number of parents grew up in this neighborhood and walked to school, but they don’t all allow their children to walk, according to Northeast Principal Nadene Stein. One parental concern is safety. “People are in a hurry,” she says. “Many people do not drive the speed limit. They do not stop at stop signs.”
Like schools throughout the country, obesity among Northeast Elementary students is a growing concern. Regular BMI testing of 1st and 4th graders in 2008 showed 21 percent (of 116) students assessed had a BMI of 85 percent or more. In 2009, 37 percent (of 142) students assessed were found to have a BMI of 85 percent or higher.
“Simply put, we are looking to increase the number of students who walk to school,” Stein says. “Fifteen percent of our students live close enough to be regular walkers, however most ride a school bus or are transported by their families.”
Northeast Elementary School was the first official partner school with the Massachusetts SRTS program, according to Ben Hammer, the state SRTS coordinator for MassRIDES, a program of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT). The school’s efforts have further benefited from the support of teachers, parents, community businesses and Healthy Waltham.
“We really wanted this to be a community effort,” Stein explains, “so that students could see that they were important to the entire community.”
The Massachusetts SRTS program operates differently from most other states, Hammer explains. It provides federally funded technical services and program incentive materials at no cost directly to schools like Northeast, he says. Because of Northeast Elementary School’s partnership with MassRIDES, Northeast has received free resources and direct technical assistance in establishing their program. This includes no cost, sustainable pedestrian safety education for Northeast’s second graders and an infrastructure assessment to address walking and bicycling barriers to Northeast that may result in funding for physical improvements.
The school used the parent survey from the National Center for Safe Routes to School to learn why students weren’t walking to school. They also added a few questions to see if parents were interested in students bicycling to school because MassRIDES, a free service of the MassDOT, had offered to come to the school to teach bicycle safety. Parent interest in bicycling to school was mixed. In addition to the traffic and sidewalk issues, parents also had concerns about stranger danger. The school developed “Northeast Walks,” a walking program using walking school buses. Students begin walking on Wednesdays from the first week of October until it is too cold to walk and then start back walking from the first Wednesday in May until the end of the school year. Each of these phases is kicked off by a week of walking. The week-long events correlate to International Walk to School Day in the fall and another spring Walk to School Day. Approximately 125 students walk each Wednesday of the program.
These walkers come from two walking buses that leave from two separate common meeting places and pick up walkers along the way. In addition, the walking school buses pick up students who get off their buses several blocks from school, as long as those students have parental permission. Both of these activities are supervised by Northeast teachers and parents. Several incentives encourage students to walk. During the week-long walk in October, students who walk earn orange and black bracelets for Halloween. In May, students who walk earn a piece of fruit and corresponding colored jelly bracelet. For example, Monday walkers receive a red apple and bracelet, Tuesday an orange and orange bracelet, etc. Local grocers donate fruit, and bracelets have been purchased through the school’s Student Activities Fund and donated by the Massachusetts Safe Routes to School program. Massachusetts SRTS has also donated other incentive items, such as star reflectors and pencils. Students who are daily walkers earn a sticker on a chart and have their name written on a blue or yellow sneaker, which is then hung on a large colorful cut-out of items designed by the school’s art teacher. Their names are placed in a raffle, and winning students have the opportunity to carry around a small stuffed blue and yellow owl, Hootie, who is the school’s mascot.
The most exciting incentive seems to be when the principal and assistant principal challenge students to walk in exchange for an antic. In 2006, the pair painted their faces yellow and blue. In 2007 they dyed their hair blue and yellow. In 2008 they “shaved” their hair (i.e. wore bald-head wigs). And in 2009 year two lucky regular walkers threw pies in their faces. The school has conducted two years of pedestrian safety training. This non-funded program may attract more parent volunteers if the school could provide food during training sessions and, perhaps, special vests/hats for the trainers, Stein says.
The school conducts hand tallies a week before the walking program begins each year so that it can measure participation. For the first three years, the goal was 100 students. During the walking program, there is an increase in the number of students who walk, especially on Wednesdays. Participation decreases during inclement weather. In addition, although 125 or more students are walking on average each Wednesday, there are still nearly 200 students who are not walking, Stein says.
The school hopes to expand its community partners to include local fitness organizations like the YMCA, the Waltham Land Trust and medical offices, including Joseph M. Smith Community Health Center. The goal is to connect families with additional opportunities for walking.
“I think the kids are very excited about it,” Stein says of “Northeast Walks!” She notes that the school has added winter walks now on one Wednesday each month, December through April, and each month has a theme. Parents donate hot chocolate on those days. On the last Wednesday of the year, the Walking Wednesday Grand Finale, Pre-K – 5 teachers take classes on mapped walks around the school.
The school has received an engineering assessment through the Massachusetts SRTS program, Hammer says. The results of the assessment recommend sidewalk, pedestrian crossing, and intersection improvements around the school. The state has currently performed 35 assessments and Northeast was in the first round of assessments, but a decision has not yet been made by MassDOT on which, if any, improvements will be funded. Because of her persistence and dedication to SRTS, Principal Stein was awarded the Outstanding Safe Routes Leadership Award at the 2007 MA SRTS Forum, Hammer notes.
Northeast Elementary is looking to identify additional funding sources in order to expand its program by identifying “safe houses” and to broaden community connections to offer healthy activities for students. Even without funding, school officials know what to do each year to keep the momentum going.
“It plans itself now,” Stein says.
Principal Nadene B. Stein