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Walking School Bus leading the way
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Walking School Bus volunteer Chris Ramsey helps a Riley Elementary School student cross the street to a group of over 20 students waiting at a bus stop. along one of three neighborhood routes. Participation in Rileys pilot program continues to grow as more kids and parents see the bus walk by their homes each morning. - photo by VERONICA COONS, Great Bend Tribune


Riley Elementary School in Great Bend and Hoisington’s elementary schools were among 15 schools in Kansas that launched a Walking School Bus program Oct. 1.  On Tuesday, two weeks into the program, Robert Johnson, a consultant with PedNet, visited with volunteers of both districts, walked with students, and shot video footage for a documentary PedNet will produce to introduce schools to the program in the future.
Bryan Scott, Riley’s physical education teacher and the volunteer coordinator for Riley Elementary School’s program, met Johnson before sunrise and they walked with students along one of the three routes Scott has organized that at the time of this writing helps over 90 students make it to school safely and on time in the morning.  While it was common historically for children to walk to school, today’s parents cite concerns about safety and the threat of abduction as reasons they choose to drive children to school instead.  They simply won’t allow their kids to walk to school without supervision.  That’s where the Walking School Bus comes in.  

Walking the walk
Volunteers Trisha Ryff, a Riley kindergarten teacher,  and Chris Ramsey,  arrive at Riley Elementary at 6:30 a.m., and are greeted by Bryan Scott, the volunteer coordinator for the Walking School Bus program.  Scott is joined by Israel, a sixth grade boy, who helps lead one of the school bus routes every morning.  His father has arranged to drop him off early with Scott because he has to get to work by 6:30 a.m., so Scott suggested Israel help.  Scott hands the boy a reflective vest and a newly charged flashlight as Trish and Chris join them in time to head out on their route.  There are three, and theirs is the longest one, so they need to leave no later than 6:35 a.m. to walk a mile to the furthest point on the route.  The first kids will be ready and waiting at 7 a.m. at their designated drop off point.  
It’s still dark outside, dark enough for the street lights to still be on, and for flashlights to be essential.  A car pulls up, and two young boys hop out, carrying book bags and a musical instrument case.  A teacher heading into the building offers to take their things to the office so they don’t have to carry them.  The boys, 5th grader Aynar and 6th grader Sebastian, quickly agree.  They are friends of Israel, and they want to help lead too, so they’ve had their parent drop them off early so they can walk too.  
Ramsey, Ryff, and the boys walk on the sidewalk as far as it goes, and where there are none, they walk along the curb, walking around cars parked along the road, avoiding puddles, and crossing the train tracks.  
A handful of kids join them along the way to the first stop, where they wait for about five minutes as cars slowly drive up and drop kids off at the corner.  When it’s time to leave for the second stop, there are 26 kids.  
Things the kids talk about on the way to school--how to spell Mississippi, soccer, and tests.
Aynar, 5th grader, and 6th grader Sebastian are the friends.  The first stop is at Barton and Plum, where over the next five minutes, four cars stop to drop off children ranging from kindergarten through 6th grade.  
Sebastian wants to become a famous soccer player, and Israel’s face lights up with pride as he says he’s going to become a mechanic.  
Ryff,  “Where we walked past earlier, there will be kids waiting now.”
Mr. Ramsey keeps a fast pace.  
The kids enjoy the walk.  Dressed in coats with hoods and hats, they aren’t bothered by the morning chill.
“We don’t walk when it rains though,” one little girls said.  “If it’s raining, we could get soaking wet.”
They agree, it wouldn’t be any fun to sit through class in wet clothes.  Scott uses group texting to let parents know if the walking school bus will not be coming due to rain or other adverse conditions.  For instance, when he was setting up routes, he contacted the Great Bend Police Department to let them know what the routes would be, in case there would be a law enforcement issue that would jeopardize the safety of the kids.  They could inform him, and he could let parents know quickly to arrange transportation for their children.  
As parents and other students began to see the “bus” pass by their homes each morning, participation in the program has grown.  As the kids pass by, neighbors, some of them elderly, come to their doors to watch the spectacle, and wave.  
When the final pick up is made, there are 40 students traveling with the Walking School Bus along 8th Street, with less than half a mile to go.  Ramsey directs the kids to cross the street once sidewalks are once again available.  The kids talk about school and homework, and soccer.  They are happy, and they arrive at school with good appetites and make their way to the lunch room for breakfast.
Ready to learn
Among the many benefits Riley Principal JoAnn Blevins sees, the program promotes healthy choices. Instead of riding to school a few blocks away, students get some valuable exercise in walking to school each morning.  And that pays off in several ways.
Scott also reached out to coaches at Barton County Community College who encouraged student athletes to volunteer with the program.  This gives the students a chance to interact with young people in college, and gives the college students an opportunity to become role models and give back.  
“Students arrive alert and ready for the day which definitely effects their ability to attend and understand lessons in the classroom,” Blevins said.   While walking to school, students can build positive, mentoring relationships with caring adults from our community. Riley students have been especially excited to walk to school with the Barton Community College athletes. “This week the Women’s Basketball team has volunteered their time, and Riley students have talked about it all week.”
Johnson has been involved with the program from its infancy.  Starting in his hometown of Columbia, Mo., to encourage healthier habits, volunteers walked with kids to and from school, providing that much needed supervision.  The program grew from there, and last year, there were about 200 volunteers and 500 students taking part in the program.  In 2010, PedNet began helping other communities launch walking school buses, partly out of frustration from hearing of failed attempts by other groups.
“There are things that we’ve learned that work, and things that have never worked that others repeatedly try,” he said.  “We wanted to help them make a success of their program.”
Since then, PedNet has worked in 29 states, including Kansas through KDOT’s “Safe Routes to School” program, Johnson said.
Schools competed for grants to be part of the pilot project in the state, and Riley Elementary School Principal JoAnn Blevins received approval from the USD Board of Education to apply over the summer months, and learned in August that Riley was selected.  Her goals were to improve student attendance, reduce tardiness, and improve student behavior.  Only two weeks into the program, positive results are already being seen.  While this is not part of a scientific study, Johnson said the results will be of interest to other schools considering launching a program.
“This is a tremendous opportunity not only to improve student health but to save money,” he said.  
Working with Prof. Katie Heinrich at Kansas State University, Johnson worked with schools do baseline fitness tests with participants on Oct. 1, and will compare them with tests that will be done on Nov. 25.   They hope to confirm their theory that in addition to all the other tangible benefits, the program is helping kids get better health scores.  
The amount of traffic reduced during the program is significant.  At Riley, the number of participants continues to grow as word spreads and families see other kids participating.  
“We started Oct. 1st, with 14 families and about 30 students,” Blevins said.  “Within a week, we had 55 families and 90 students participating and more who want to enroll. This alone tells me that families and students value the Walking School Bus program.”
According to Scott, that’s nearly a quarter of the student body.  That means fewer cars and less congestion in front of the school each morning.  And at many schools, that means traffic control duty for one of the highest skilled, highest paid professionals--the principal.  
“Even if a school district doesn’t have a yellow school bus program,  being able to utilize the principal’s skills more appropriately translates into a cost savings,” Johnson said.
The program is set to start up again in the spring sometime around March 15, Johnson said.  Individual schools will need to determine when, based on conditions in their area.  Other elementary school principals in the district are keeping a close eye on Riley in hopes of expanding the program in the future.