'Walking' school bus gives kids exercise, safety

Thursday , March 06, 2014 - 10:11 AM

Laura Christman

REDDING, Calif. -- The wheels on the bus don’t always go ‘round and ‘round. When the Cypress Elementary School “walking bus” rolls, feet are the force.

Not to be confused with a big, yellow school bus, the walking bus is made up of students, staff members and parents who make a 3/4-mile trek through neighborhoods to the Redding, Calif., school each school day. Some 15 to 20 students typically participate, but there have been as many as 28.

The walking bus departs at 7:55 a.m. on school days from the parking lot at First United Methodist Church. Like a real school bus, it makes a few stops along the way so other children can join in. At the front of the line of walkers are students holding a sign announcing: “Cypress School walking school bus.” Those would be the bus drivers.

“It’s the best thing,” second-grader Meadow Boone said of being a sign-holder, a job that rotates among the children. If another student walks in front of the sign, the driver sends him or her to the back of the bus, she said.

Her sister Majexistique, a third-grader, said the walking bus is a fun way to get to school. “We get exercise instead of just being lazy,” she said. “We get to see our friends. We get to talk and see how they are doing.”

The walking bus began in October. It’s a collaboration between Healthy Shasta’s Safe Routes to School program and the Healthy Students Initiative, said Sherrie Brookes, a Healthy Shasta educator. Cypress is one of three Healthy Students Initiative schools in Shasta County. The walking bus is funded with approximately $4,000 from the initiative, Brookes said. The funding covers a stipend for the two staff members who walk with the children daily and the costs of prizes for participants. It also pays for umbrellas and ponchos, because the walking bus goes rain or shine.

Brookes said the goals are to encourage children to be active; reduce vehicle congestion at the school, which means less exhaust in the air; and teach children how to be safe walkers.

A similar federal program provides funds to states to improve the ability of primary and middle school students to walk and bicycle to school safely. Created in 2005, the Safe Routes to Schools Program is a project of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration.

On a recent morning, Bobbie Wion, who leads Cypress’ walking bus each day and is director of the school’s after-school program, stopped the students before crossing a driveway to point out an idling car.

“Make sure it’s not backing out,” she told them.

She also showed them blind spots where cars might not see them: “See how that car parked there is blocking the view?”

Wion enjoys walking with the children each morning. She said they are upbeat, even if the morning is rainy or cold. They like it when drivers give a friendly honk and neighbors wave.

The neighborhood has been supportive, she said. Residents cut back plants and changed the times when sprinklers come on to make things easier for the walkers.

Most of the children participating in the Cypress walking bus are from the neighborhood and probably would be walking to school if the program didn’t exist, Brookes said. But the walking bus provides a supervised and social way for them to get to school. And it has drawn several new walkers, she said.

Karen Schmitz drives her 9-year-old son, C.J., to the church parking lot instead of the school so he can be part of the walking bus camaraderie and supervision.

“I think it is absolutely wonderful,” she said.

Brookes hopes the walking bus at Cypress revs up interest in the concept. She’d like to see parent groups organize walking buses at other schools.

“We would like to see it be more parent-driven -- get more parents involved and PTAs,” she said.

(Contact Laura Christman of the Redding Record Searchlight in California at LChristman@redding.com)

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