It’s a crisp autumn morning, a full hour before the first bell, when a group of Jefferson Elementary School faculty takes off walking through the neighborhood south of school.
At their first stop, third-grade teacher Sondra Lemke knocks on a front door.
“Are Wyatt and Delilah ready?”
Yes, answers their mother, smiling and holding a small dog in one arm. The kids grab their backpacks and trot outside, greeting Lemke on the porch. Delilah Russell, a second-grader, gives the teacher a hug.
“Have a good day,” their mother says. “Best behavior!”
“Always!” Lemke calls back.
The students are part of Jefferson’s Here-O Club, a program aimed at encouraging kids to walk together every morning, supervised by faculty members or older students, to get to school on time and safely. It is one of several so-called “walking school bus” programs organized by Wichita schools or parent groups.
On Wednesday, more than 90 schools across Kansas, including 42 in Wichita, will celebrate International Walk to School Day with group walks and lessons on pedestrian safety. Some schools, including Jefferson, were so inspired by last year’s event that they established long-term walking programs.
“We were looking at on-time attendance … and it wasn’t good,” Lemke said. “We had a walking school bus event last October, when all the teachers went out, and that went really well. So I thought, ‘Maybe we could figure out a way to do this all year.’ ”
Most of Jefferson’s 450 students don’t qualify for bus service because they live within 2.5 miles of the school, just south of Kellogg at Oliver. Many parents don’t feel comfortable letting their young children walk alone on streets dotted with boarded up houses and barking dogs, in inclement weather, or across busy intersections at Harry or Lincoln. But many aren’t able to walk or drive them to school.
With the walking school bus, Lemke and her team of volunteers fan out on established routes through the neighborhood, picking up students along the way and escorting them back to Jefferson in time for breakfast.
“I think it’s awesome,” said Loretta Howard, a mother of two Jefferson students and aunt to two more. Because Howard has back issues, she said she can’t always walk the children more than a mile to school and back, so she walks them to a crosswalk at Lincoln, where they meet up with Lemke’s group.
“I think this is really generous because you know they’re not paid,” Howard said of the faculty volunteers. “They walk all over the neighborhood and collect all these children and make sure they get to school. These are amazing teachers.”
Principal Janice Wilson, who assisted on a recent walk through the Hilltop neighborhood south of the school, said attendance is one of the school’s biggest challenges.
Research shows that students who have regular, on-time daily attendance do better at school and are more likely to graduate, but making that clear to parents isn’t easy. She and other educators hope the positive peer pressure of the walking school bus – like a friend who picks you up to go exercise – will help.
“Unfortunately, for some families, it’s more important to sleep in than to get to school,” Wilson said. “We have to have some serious conversations about how much they miss if they’re 20 or 30 minutes late.”
At one stop Monday morning, fourth-grader Kelsey Ruiz knocked on a door to pick up a classmate. After several knocks, the girl’s mother came to the door.
“I’m having a hard time getting her up today, so we’ll just have to try again tomorrow,” she said. “I’ll try to get her there later. We’ll be fast.”
“You want us to wait for her?” assistant principal Amanda Lowrance called from the sidewalk. “Or you’ll bring her?”
“I’ll bring her,” the mother answered.
As the group walked away, Lowrance shook her head. “Mondays,” she said, as if that explained it all.
Lemke and Rachel Trombley, the school social worker, handed out neon-colored T-shirts this week to members of the Here-O Club – a name that signifies “here on time” – as an incentive to join the group and a way to make them more visible to motorists. Lemke’s 16-year-old daughter used her birthday money to help pay for the shirts.
Students got to pick their color, and several threw the shirts over their clothes on the way to school.
“I think it’s kind of fun,” said fifth-grader Tamari Howard. “It’s a good idea to stay in one group instead of being separated, because if you get separated it’s easier to get smashed by somebody.”
Safe Kids Kansas offers these tips to help keep your child or teen safe wherever they walk:
▪ Teach and model proper pedestrian behavior. Put devices down when you are driving or walking around cars.
▪ From the first conversation you have with children about crossing the street, talk about the dangers of distraction. Talk to teens about putting down mobile devices while walking.
▪ If you need to use a cellphone, stop on the sidewalk and find a safe area to talk or text.
▪ Cross streets at a corner, using traffic signals and marked crosswalks whenever possible.
▪ Try to make eye contact with drivers and wait until they come to a complete stop before crossing in front of them. Do not assume that because you can see the driver, the driver can see you.
▪ Never cross the street between bushes or parked cars.
▪ Look left, right, and left again when crossing and keep looking as you cross. Don’t just rely on your ears – electric and hybrid vehicles run silently.
▪ Walk on sidewalks or paths. If there are no sidewalks, walk facing traffic as far to the left as possible.
▪ Be alert around cars. Watch out for cars that are turning or backing up, as those drivers are likely looking at traffic and may not see you.
▪ Do not allow children under age 10 to cross streets alone. Adult supervision is essential until you are sure a child has good traffic skills and judgment.
▪ Buy clothing or accessories, such as vests, with reflective materials for your family to wear. This will help you be visible at dawn, dusk and after dark, or during other low-light situations, such as rainy or foggy weather.
▪ Drivers should check frequently for children when backing out of a driveway or parking space. Take a quick walk around your vehicle to look for kids, pets or other items.
For more information on pedestrian safety, visit www.safekids.org.
Start a walking school bus
Parents often cite safety issues as a primary reason they are reluctant to allow their children to walk to school. Providing adult supervision by way of a walking school bus may help reduce those worries for families in your school community.
A walking school bus can be as informal as two families taking turns walking their children to school or as structured as a route with meeting points, a timetable and a rotating schedule of trained volunteers. Think of it as a carpool without the car.
For more information or guidance for starting a walking school bus, visit www.walkingschoolbus.org.