Children who walk to school tend to have higher academic performance, alertness in class, reasoning abilities, and levels of happiness and relaxation, as well as lower stress levels during the school day, according to pediatric experts.
With such benefits in mind and National Pedestrian Safety Month (October) quickly approaching, Chico Unified School District is launching a pilot Walking School Bus program — an initiative that promotes safe routes to school, often chaperoned by school personnel, or parent and community volunteers.
Districts throughout California are partnering with local municipalities, community organizations and agencies to promote and operate safe walking programs. For example, Monterey Peninsula USD works with Transportation Agency for Monterey County, while Santa Monica-Malibu USD partners with the City of Santa Monica.
In Chico, the work began when Enloe Medical Center and the Butte County Health Department contacted the district about starting a pilot program at one elementary school. Mike Allen, principal of Chapman Elementary School, jumped at the opportunity.
“We’re still in our early stages, but I think it will be just a huge asset to the school. It allows folks to have a little more freedom to get their kids to school by giving them another option, and it’s a healthy, safe option with parents,” Allen said. “And hopefully, as a byproduct, people will drive safer around school seeing the orange vests, and the kids walking and in a big group. So, I’m hoping that the benefit of it is all the little things add up to a lot of benefit for our students and our families.”
On Aug. 8, Allen participated in a “walk audit,” during which participants walk the routes students would take from home to school to identify sidewalk gaps, places where signage is obscured by vegetation and more to outline opportunities for both short-term maintenance needs and long-term infrastructure improvements.
Focusing on a few central hubs — apartment complexes and duplexes where higher numbers of students live — Allen said being able to see the paths, conditions of sidewalks, crosswalks and streetlights, where chaperones could meet kids, and how long the trip would take was “very insightful.”
“I’m all about community, and I think in the long run, something like this strengthens communities,” he said, noting the added convenience it will provide for single working parents and families that need to drop children off at multiple school sites each morning. But it’s more than that.
“Just walking the audit today, you see more than you ever see when you’re in your car driving,” Allen continued. “Getting out and walking to school instead of driving helps, especially the young kids, feel a closer connection to their community, where they live. There’s a lot of different things that kids experience along the way.”
Moving forward, he said, the school will be conducting outreach among families and local community groups to find volunteer chaperones.
The community-building aspect is a huge bonus for Chico USD board President Kathleen Kaiser, who recalls her own experience as a first grader walking to the school bus stop and waiting around, meeting some of her neighbors for the first time.
“After that, everybody knew each other — knew who went to school and what grade they were in, and then people were playing together,” she said. “I do think there’s a strong community-building aspect to actually doing that routine together. That would be my hope, that besides the benefit to them being to school on time, that they would have that support structure.”
Some of the dozen elementary schools in Chico USD cover regions in which walking to school wouldn’t make sense, Kaiser said. But should the district decide to expand the program beyond Chapman Elementary to campuses in similar neighborhoods, she said officials will look at whether peer interactions improved and if overall attendance and on-time attendance in particular increased. “That’s a really critical aspect — kids can’t learn if they’re not there,” Kaiser said.
Humboldt County’s Safe Routes to School project goes back at least to 2007, explained Natalie Arroyo, projects coordinator for the Redwood Community Action Agency’s Natural Resources Services division, which leads the initiative. “The Humboldt County Office of Education was highly involved in helping get this effort off the ground,” she said.
In rural Humboldt County, where some students would have to walk significant distances to school, walk audits may include routes from designated safe drop-off locations. “Parking lots are easy to access facilities a few blocks away so kids can get a little physical activity, but the parents don’t feel they are doing something as potentially risky for their child — they’ll be able to walk with a group,” Arroyo said.
Ashley Shannon, planning specialist II for the Natural Resources Services division, has worked with local elementary schools on pedestrian and bicycle safety education emphasizing general rules of the road, ways to ensure that passing motorists see you before crossing the street, being aware of your surroundings and the importance of helmets and other safety gear.
“I look at it like passive environmentalism. You’re teaching kids from a young age to not only be independent, but also helping parents have confidence in their children knowing how to safely cross the streets,” Shannon said. “And then they grow up less dependent on vehicles, so it’s supporting the idea that there are other modes of transportation, and they are just as safe and it’s fun.”
Just like Chico USD officials, the county’s safe routes program underscores the value of looking at safe school transportation alternatives through a community-building lens.
“I think there’s a lot of recognition that projects that support youth also support seniors and people living with disabilities and anyone who’s a little bit more vulnerable in our transportation realm,” Arroyo said. “So, there are a lot of opportunities for partnerships with [senior resource centers] or other groups who recognize that those enhancements can help their particular focus group as well.”
Children are like salmon, she continues, noting the oddity of such a statement. When it comes to fisheries restoration, the reason salmon are often the focus species is because they’re a good indicator of health throughout the whole watershed.
“They’re an indicator species — if they’re able to thrive, if we do things that help this one species thrive, inevitably everything in the watershed will be doing better,” Arroyo explained. “And I really see kids as sort of an indicator as well. If we have the kind of communities where kids can safely walk to school, then elders can walk to their appointments, whole families can walk to the grocery store, and we’re going to see a community that [is] a lot healthier and more resilient, and people have more pride in that kind of community as well. It has these ripple effects throughout the whole community.”