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Get your feet on the bus

NORTH LIBERTY– The next new home-to-school school transportation craze doesn’t involve car pooling or public transport, jetpacks or hovercrafts.
But a pair of comfortable Keds® could come in handy.
Students and families at Garner Elementary will launch the area’s first Walking School Bus next Wednesday, March 21. The concept of a walking school bus stems from the International Walk To School Day celebrated each October, and has been developed as a nationwide initiative by the Safe Routes To Schools program. A Walking School Bus is merely a group of children who walk to school along a specified route under the supervision of one or more adults.
These days, it’s a little more complicated to walk to school than it might have been for generations past. Everyone used to walk to school with no shoes in the snow and uphill both ways, or so the old saw goes.
In this organized effort, routes must be examined for safety concerns and walk-ability. Adult supervisors must be trained and undergo background checks. Law enforcement must be part of the planning process. Families must be involved.
Nick Sobocinski is the Safe Routes to School program director for the Iowa Bicycle Coalition, and he has been seeing to all those details, and more, so that Garner families have one more option in exercising their commitment to the goals of getting kids moving and introducing them to healthy habits that will last a lifetime.
Garner Elementary was one of 11 Iowa schools to be selected for a grant from the PE4Life organization, a program created to enhance the quality of physical education for elementary and secondary students in Iowa. In response, the school’s staff, student body and families have organized several special events and adopted new everyday habits that enhance learning, encourage social engagement and guide positive life choices through increased physical activity.
The Walking School Bus is one more example of the way Garner Gators are getting their tails in gear.
Sobocinski was involved with Johnson County’s Obesity Task Force, a coalition charged with creating obesity prevention programs for the county’s residents. The idea of a Walking School Bus fit right in with both the task force’s mission and the Safe Routes To Schools program goals. He began researching schools that might be a good fit, and learned that three-quarters of Garner’s entire student body participated in a recent International Walk to School Day.
“Garner was recommended as a great place to start, because P.E. teacher Karen Bagby had been a great influence there in pushing healthy living and active lifestyles, the school had received the PE4Life grant, and it’s a walk-able school,” said Sobocinski.
Sobocinski visited with Garner’s Parent-Teacher Organization last fall, and they were interested in pursing the possibility. Garner parent Amy Nielsen became a point person, and she began communicating with other parents to gauge interest in forming an official Walking School Bus program. Garner Principal Mindy Paulsen sat down with North Liberty City Engineer Kevin Trom, and Kent Ralston of the Metropolitan Planning Organization of Johnson County (MPOJC) to talk about walkable routes and potential safety hazards. North Liberty police officials were brought into the conversation about safety enforcement. Officials from Johnson County’s Public Health Department visited Garner school’s family fitness event to introduce the concept to parents.
The idea gained momentum, and plans were rolling along in no time. Nielsen said about 20 percent of all Garner students were interested.
“The parent response was very positive,” said Nielsen. “Of course, some expressed some safety concerns with kids having to cross 965. But Nick and I have been able to go to city leaders and help address those concerns.”
For starters, Garner has a number of volunteers who have stepped up to supervise kids on their routes to school. Also, the Iowa Bicycle Coalition will provide formalized training for crossing guards.
Front Street is another big safety concern when it comes to pedestrians, said Sobocinski.
“Front Street shows some shocking numbers in its traffic volumes,” he said. A study by the Johnson County Council of Governments (now the MPOJC) from Sept. 21 to Sept. 24, 2010– the first fall that Garner was open– recorded close to 6,000 vehicles traveling that street daily. At the intersection of Birch and Front streets alone, traffic counts jump from 183 vehicles between 6-7 a.m. to 546 vehicles between 7-8 am. At its peak volume, around 5 p.m., Front Street has about 685 vehicles traveling through the intersection.
“That shows there are a lot of vehicles going through when kids are walking to and from school,” said Sobocinski.
To alleviate safety concerns for pedestrians, North Liberty Police officers have committed to heightening their presence on Front Street in the mornings and afternoons, Sobocinski said, to curb speeding. The City of North Liberty officially reduced the speed on Front Street down to 30 mph, and has agreed to monitor the markings on the cross walks to make sure lines remain highly visible. In addition, Sobocinski said other measures will be pursued, including applying for funding from the Federal Safe Routes to Schools to increase safety at all Front Street intersections and across Highway 965.
After conducting the research and investigating potential routes, Sobocinski found that most of Garner’s students live within a one mile walking distance, which takes an average of 20 minutes to walk. “That’s 40 minutes of physical activity kids will get that they might not otherwise,” he said. “The social aspect of walking with other kids is great, and it has been shown that physical activity before school gets kids’ brains active, and can help kids perform better in school.”
In addition, the Walking School Bus helps the environment.
“We correlate more kids walking with less vehicle use,” said Sobocinski.
This week, Garner begins its pilot program for the Walking School Bus, with groups of children traveling on foot one day each week from now until the end of the school year. Nielsen credited P.E. instructor Bagby, Garner parents and Sobicinski for getting the wheels in motion. “Mrs. Bagby does a wonderful job of planting the seed with kids to keep them active in a variety of fun and new ways,” said Nielsen. “We have a lot of active parents who are runners, bikers and athletes. This is a generally health-conscious and green-conscious community, but I definitely think Mrs. Bagby encourages that physical activity in new and fun ways that make the kids want to do it. That is going to help our program a lot. And of course, we couldn’t have done it without Nick’s help.”
“It’s been great to see that parent dedication,” said Sobocinski. “We would really like to see it continue, but it will depend on parent and student feedback.”
Over the summer, organizers will reconvene to asses the success of the program, make any necessary changes and get things in line for next fall. Sobocinski said his services are available to other schools and before-and-after school care programs who might be interested in starting their own Walking School Bus, and the program continues to look for adult volunteers to supervise walking groups, even if they do not have students who attend Garner.
“Ideally, once its going, the Bicycle Coalition will be able to step back, and hopefully it becomes ingrained in the schools and with parents for years to come.”