Windsor, Vermont: Parent volunteers lead walking school buses forward

Introduction

Safe Routes to School coordinators at State Street School listened to parents while developing a program anchored by walking school buses that address worries about safety of children walking and bicycling to school.

Results from the locally administered parent survey showed that parents’ biggest barrier was fear of stranger danger and traffic speed, according to physical education teacher Donna Ewald, who spearheaded the SRTS effort. Creating walking school buses provided adult supervision for students walking to school.

“It was really parent-driven,” Ewald said. “They weren’t ready to have their kids walk to school on their own.”

The town of Windsor has 3,756 people. It is located along the Connecticut River and had been a thriving town driven by mill-powered precision manufacturing during the industrial revolution, but in recent years it has struggled economically as major employers have left the area. Now, approximately 46 percent of the students receive free or reduced school lunch. State Street School is located in a walkable downtown, but the busy roads VT Route 44 and US Route 5 run through town, and a culture of driving remains strong.

Activities

In July 2006, the school received an $18,000 non-infrastructure grant for encouragement and education efforts that paid for a consultant and incentive prizes. This grant was administered by Mt. Ascutney Hospital, which has a continuing outreach program on community health and fitness. In October 2007, the Town of Windsor and State School were awarded $200,400 for infrastructure to fix sidewalks and install radar speed feedback signs.

After receiving the grant in 2006, SRTS organizers held a meeting where parents looked at mapping routes and creating walking school buses. In some cases, neighbors met neighbors for the first time, and students learned which of their friends lived nearby. Six walking school buses were created to walk to school on Wednesdays, and two others also walked on other days when parents could work out the details. Students wore safety vests, and the Windsor Police Department assisted with speed enforcement, used its radar speed cart and enforced crosswalk laws. In addition, “Slow down, kids walking” temporary signs raised driver awareness about walkers.

There is also a drop-off location so children who live too far away to walk from home can participate if their parents drop them off. SRTS organizers are currently researching the issues related to having buses drop students there once a week.

The biggest strength for the program has been the community itself, according to Jason Rasmussen, senior planner with Southern Windsor County Regional Planning Commission. The school is downtown, and it has an active group of parent volunteers. An unintended benefit of the program is that it led community members to build connections.

Milestones

In the first year of the program, the number of students walking to school doubled from 17 percent to 35 percent on walking school bus days, and there was a corresponding 20 percent decrease in traffic on Ascutney Street. Safe Routes to School organizers have tracked results with in-class tallies and parent surveys.

The school is in the center of town, and “it’s a perfect school for walking,” Ewald says. Challenges come from having to cross the street, but one end of the road in front of the school has a crossing guard, and the other end has a stop light with a button walkers can push to activate the light.

The concept of walking school buses connected with concerns about the environment, high gas prices and emissions. “It all came together,” Ewald says.

Ewald has led the school’s participation in International Walk to School Day for seven years, and high school students participated as walk leaders on those special days. In addition, Ewald is a certified BikeSmart instructor and has been teaching bike safety to students for several years. After the school received its SRTS grant, the Vermont Agency of Transportation required grant recipients to attend SRTS training, and Ewald has now added a WalkSmart module to her class curriculum. “It’s taught our kids a lot,” she said.

Walking and bicycling to school was used in the physical education and health curriculum, and sixth graders incorporated walking and bicycling into their personal fitness plans. Students also tried to log enough miles to equal the Long Trail that traverses Vermont.

Now that the federal funding for the walking school bus program has ended, parent volunteers sustain five walking school buses, and bike racks are full. Parent volunteers remain active through a listserv.

With the 2007 infrastructure grant, two sections of sidewalk will be constructed to connect missing sections and in another case will improve the sidewalk by moving it over to make room for a grass strip between the sidewalk and the road. The school plans to pursue funding for more bicycle racks in the future.

Their success is the result of intentional efforts to recruit new parents to support the walking school buses. Current volunteers seek parents with kindergartners and first graders to carry on the work.

“I think it’s going to change the culture of our town,” Ewald said. “You can walk and bike safely, and it’s helping the environment,” as well as encouraging people to become more active.

Contact

Donna Ewald
SRTS Coordinator State Street School
(802) 674-2310
ewdssdon@windsor.k12.vt.us