Grant Elementary students gathered at the intersection of Bingham and Wayne roads with their parents on Monday morning, waiting to take their new bus to school. They looked over their shoulders as a big, yellow bus groaned down the street.
“I don’t guess he’ll be stopping,” said mom Debbie Hamilton.
Indeed, the bus passed them without slowing, and the students started their first day of the Walking School Bus program, in which they walk to school in a group instead of catching a ride.
When Chris Walthall, co-founder of the Columbia program, approached the children with a big, yellow flag, the kids clamored to be the first to carry it down the street.
“We’ll take turns,” she assured them.
Co-founder Ian Thomas and Walthall’s plan promotes the activity as a way for kids to maintain a healthy weight while reducing traffic congestion and air pollution around schools. It’s paid for with part of a five-year, $200,000 grant from PedNet, a Columbia organization that promotes active living, received from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Walthall said she got the idea for walking school buses when she began walking her son to school and noticed the interest of other students and parents.
“They saw me doing it, then his friends would want to come along after school instead of riding the bus,” she said. “It kind of started a chain reaction.”
Groups from Russell Boulevard, Ridgeway, and Fairview elementary schools are also taking part in the four-week trial period.
Thomas said he and Walthall researched existing walking school bus programs in Kearney, Neb., and Chicago that are larger and more complex. They are planning to implement a permanent program by the fall.
“At the moment our families are hand-picked,” Thomas said. “Our goal is to involve more students. So many kids that live less than a mile from school are being driven by their parents.”
Thomas is interested in modeling the permanent system after the project in Kearney, he said, which pays mentors to accompany children and is set up so that no child has to walk more than a block from their home to join the route.
“I would have to apply for another grant in order to do that, but that’s what I’m leaning toward,” he added.
Grant Elementary School students bounded down Providence Road, their yellow shirts matching the clumps of dandelions that had popped up along the roadside. Mothers called out to their children from behind, reminding them to stop at each corner and keep an adult pace.
“Hey guys! You don’t get to see this driving in your car,” Walthall exclaimed as they turned onto Stewart Road and Flat Branch Creek came into view.
The group stopped to peer over the bridge for a few minutes before continuing the last few blocks to the school building. Participants in the program believe the benefits of morning walking are more than those regarding health and the environment.
Giving kids the chance to talk to their friends and expend some energy before class, Walthall said, helps them to be focus on their work.
“The teachers have mentioned to me they can tell (who) the kids that have been walking (are),” she said.
The children were not the only ones who enjoyed taking time to socialize. The parents in the group seemed to have just as much catching up to do.
“With busy schedules and busy lives, it’s sometimes hard to catch up with everyone,” Hamilton said. “So it is a nice way for the parents to visit each other, but also for the parents to visit with the children.”