Madera County Department of Public Health is a grantee for the Cal Fresh Healthy Living Program, a SNAP-Ed Implementing Agency. During the 2019-2020 school year, they worked with George Washington Elementary School to pilot a Walking School Bus Program (WSB). This was done to keep students safe while walking to school. Many students walk through wide, uncontrolled crossings where there are no sidewalks on the road.
George Washington Elementary School is a walking school in the City of Madera. The school is in one of the most underserved, low-income neighborhoods in the city. There is only one bus route for the 670 students enrolled. A walking school sounds ideal for students due to the multiple benefits of walking, active transportation, and physical activity. However, it is not ideal when the neighborhood is not safe to do so. For many of George Washington’s students, walking is the only option they have to get to school. They often must do it without adult supervision and in unsafe conditions, like missing sidewalks, long uncontrolled crosswalks, and unsafe drivers.
According to the Statewide Integrated Traffic Records Systems, most pedestrian collisions in Madera take place in the low-income section of the city. The victims of those collisions are between the ages of 5 and 24. Among other disparities, children in this neighborhood face fewer sidewalks, fewer safe street features, fewer streets with proper lighting, and an increase in danger due to crime.
A Walking School Bus Program was the answer to many of these challenges. Madera County Department of Public Health (MCDPH) partnered with the school to host the first Walk to School Day Event in 2018. Many elected officials, parents and students participated. After this event, parents expressed interest in a daily opportunity to safely guide their children to school. The concept of a walking school bus seemed like the perfect solution.
In the fall of 2018, the MCDPH partnered with the on-site Parent Resource Center. They started recruiting parents to volunteer to help start a Walking School Bus Program. Recruitment meetings, planning of routes, strategizing, and trainings all took place. A second annual Walk to School Day Event served as a Kick-Off to the Walking School Bus Program. Participating parents recruited more parents during the event. They introduced themselves and the new WSB routes to all students during A Safe Routes to School assembly.
The program started with two routes running once per week. It ended with one main route running daily before school. The number of students participating in the project daily ranged from 7- 25 students. Parent participation ranged from 2-5 parents daily. This WSB route was particularly important to parents:
- It helped students cross a major uncontrolled crosswalk.
- It helped students feel safer when having to walk on the street due to the lack of sidewalks.
- It provided working parents with the peace of mind that their children were walking to school safely.
The WSB Program was not enough for this group of parents. They came together and recruited more parents to increase their voice and power. Together, they approached elected officials on the many concerns they had about pedestrian safety. The MCDPH organized a meeting with elected officials, school administration, city staff, and police department staff to discuss pedestrian safety. Parents advocated for more sidewalks, a safer crosswalk, and an increase in police presence during morning and afternoon school rush hours.
Their determination, efforts, and preparation in approaching elected and non-elected officials resulted in many of the desired changes. As a result of their effort:
- New sidewalks were built.
- Police presence increased around the school and in the neighborhood.
- The MCDPH helped the parents coordinate WSB meetings and create flyers to promote the program.
- The MCDPH provided the parents with the needed training to run the program and linked them to other resources.
In an informal survey given to students about the WSB Program, a student wrote: “Yes, I feel safer walking with the Walking School Bus Program because they stop the cars.”
Students expressed feeling safer and happier walking to school and enjoying walking with friends. They all expressed learning from the program. They learned that it is safer to walk in a group, to not run when on the street, and to walk on sidewalks when available. The factors that made them feel safer were the parents acting as cross guards, stopping traffic, and having adults with them always.
The walking school bus program was paused due to COVID-related school closures in the 2020/2021 school year. The Madera County Department of Public Health looks forward to resuming the program in the future.
This article was submitted by the Madera County Department of Public Health, a grantee for the Cal Fresh Healthy Living Program, a SNAP-Ed Implementing Agency. For more information, please contact Alan Gilmore or call: (559) 675-7893.