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Walking School Bus
Do school buses walk?
In Crook County, they sure do.
Starting Wednesday morning, April 5, Crooked River Elementary students who live within a mile of their school will be able to "hop on" a Walking School Bus and not only get some fresh air and exercise, but be able to socialize on the way to school.
"Walking to school is a way of building habits in students where they can learn to move a little bit more every day," said Abby Leibowitz, an AmeriCorps VISTA with the Crook County Health Department.
In her role, she was tasked with increasing opportunities for physical activity in the community, and the health department identified walking to school as a valuable project.
Leibowitz learned about the Walking School Bus Program that other school districts have found successful, so she decided to give it a try in Crook County.
Normally, buses do not pick up children within a 1-mile radius of the school, and many of those students get a car ride to school.
So instead, each Wednesday morning between April 5 and June 7, trained adult volunteers will guide CRE students on a safe walk to school using four different routes.
"As crazy as our world is these days, I love having adults walking with student groups to school," said CRE Principal Cheri Rasmussen. "Having a meeting place to walk together is one more way for students to build social skills."
Leibowitz's research indicates that walking to school can have many benefits, including improved health, improved attendance, safer streets, less traffic, lower costs, better air quality and strengthened community.
Chronic absenteeism could decrease, especially in areas with high numbers of single-parent households.
"If that one parent isn't able to get their child to school, the child might not go," Leibowitz said.
Walking School Buses will eliminate some of the morning traffic.
"If there were fewer people driving and more people walking, that funnel right in front of Crooked River would be a lot better," Leibowitz said. "That is a really big benefit, especially for the families who live too far for walking to be a viable mode of transportation."
Rasmussen added that defining safer routes to school so there are not as many students crossing streets alone, being spread out throughout the town, or walking on the road nearer to traffic instead of sidewalks is also helpful.
Additionally, Leibowitz pointed out, there's a strengthened community as neighbors get to know each other, parents get to know each other, and the students enjoy walking together because it gives them time to socialize.
Last fall, Leibowitz worked with Rasmussen to plan a Walk to School Day. They sent a flyer home, made a few online posts, and encouraged kids to walk or bike to school using the four different supervised routes.
The results: 72 CRE students walked and 10 biked to school, which was 16.3 percent of the student body.
"That says that even in a rural area where this might not be viable for everyone, we can still make a really big impact in terms of how many kids are walking and biking to school," Leibowitz said.
Based on this success, Rasmussen and Leibowitz applied for the Intergenerational Safe Streets Grant. The Safe Routes to School National Partnership Pacific Northwest and AARP granted them $1,000 in November. The grant covers the cost of flyers, orange vests, incentives for the walkers, snacks and signage.
In order for the program to be successful, she needs at least eight adult volunteer "bus drivers," two for each route.
Volunteers will attend a one-hour training session about pedestrian safety and general conduct, pass a criminal background check, and guide students on a 25-minute walk to school each Wednesday morning.
"I'm going to be asking not just parents but also people in the broader community," Leibowitz said. "There are a lot of people who are newly retired or at an age where they can still walk and really want to have structure, and they have the time to give back."
To encourage student participation, flyers and information will be sent to all students who do not ride a bus, details will be on the school website, and Rasmussen will complete an auto-dialer message by phone to all parents.
Routes will begin at 7:20 a.m. at three intersections: Southwest Deer and Southwest Second streets; South Main and Southwest Fifth streets; and Southeast Dunham and Southeast Seventh streets. The fourth route will start at 7:30 a.m. at Southeast Knowledge and Southeast Eighth streets.
"The reason that we chose these routes was we felt like it was a good fit for where the students live, but also, I went out and did walk audits," Leibowitz said, adding that she observed low traffic areas and lots of sidewalks.
To participate, students must have a signed permission slip on file. It is the parents' responsibility to ensure that their children meet up with the Walking School Bus group.
Bikes are not part of the program, although bikers may walk their bikes with the group.
"We don't have any adult volunteers on bikes, and it's difficult to effectively supervise both bikers and walkers," Leibowitz said. "I'd be open to allowing scooters to join, although kids have to stay with the group."
The longest route is 1.14 miles, and each is expected to be 25 minutes or less – going at a kids' pace.
Following the advice to start small and build a really successful program, Leibowitz chose to operate the Walking School Buses only once a week in the spring.
"There's a lot of volunteer power required to do it every single day," she said, adding that it's harder to get people to volunteer at 3 p.m. "I'm basically trying to start the program small and build it bigger so that it's successful at first."
Rasmussen said that at this point, they plan to continue the Walking School Bus Program next school year and possibly extend it to Barnes Butte Elementary.
"We as a community can create a culture of walking and biking and do so safely so that other people are encouraged to do the same," Leibowitz said.
Walking School Bus
To volunteer, sign up your child, or get more information, contact Abby Leibowitz
Phone: 541-447-5165, ext. 202