Walking School Bus promotes safety, exercise

Josh FloryOur Town Youth

There’s not an actual bus, but for some Knox County Schools students an after-school program created by Knox County gives them an opportunity to travel together while also getting some exercise.

In recent years, several KCS elementary schools have begun participating in the Walking School Bus program, which is an initiative of the Knoxville-Knox County Safe Routes to School Partnership. Some schools have worked with the Knox County Health Department on the program, while a nonprofit organization called Bike Walk Knoxville has also helped promote the effort.

The program offers students a chaperoned walk to their home or pickup point, with a teacher or volunteer leading the way and fluorescent safety vests provided to all participants.

On a recent afternoon at West View Elementary School, students took advantage of the program for the last day before it goes on hiatus for the winter.

Teaching assistant Cindy Poland led a group of students out of the school and down the steps toward Mingle Avenue, where they set off toward home.

Kindergarten teacher Wendy Markwood, who was part of the group, said the walking bus is a great opportunity to interact with parents and community members who are out in the neighborhood.

Markwood said the daily walk also gives her a chance to visit with her students outside of the classroom.

“They like to just talk to you,” Markwood said. “I don’t have time to do that in class, it seems like, as much as they want. They want to just have somebody listen to their stories.”

Besides West View, the health department leads the program at Beaumont, Belle Morris and Christenberry elementary schools. Bike Walk Knoxville implements a similar program at Dogwood Elementary.

At some schools, students walk directly to their homes, while at others they travel to an alternative pickup site to meet their parent or guardian.

Amber Ford, a public health educator with the Knox County Health Department, said the program has become part of the culture at participating schools, and many teachers say it helps them feel connected to the community.

Another major goal is to help promote a healthy lifestyle for students. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, higher physical activity and fitness levels are associated with improved cognitive performance among students.

But the agency says only 21.6 percent of 6- to 19-year-olds in the United States meet the goal of 60 minutes of physical activity per day, at least five days a week.

The Walking School Bus, Ford said, is “great physical activity that’s built in five days a week, for both the students and the teachers.”

As part of the program, the health department has created a list of pedestrian safety tips, including the importance of looking both ways at intersections, avoiding distractions and being careful around dogs.

Susan Martin, site resource coordinator at West View for the Great Schools Partnership, said walk leaders emphasize those safety tips, adding that a group of West High School students is being trained to act as safety mentors at West View next year.

Martin predicted that the involvement of older students will make West View’s children more engaged in the conversation about safety: “They’re high-schoolers. They hang the moon!” she said with a laugh.

The Walking School Bus will resume on March 1, but the cold weather didn’t slow down West View’s students on their last walking day before winter.

Third-grader Nickia said she likes to walk because “We get to find new adventures,” while first-grader Aiden said he likes to bring home sticks, pebbles and other objects he finds along the way.

And what does he do with them? “I discover them and what they’re made out of,” he said.

Josh Flory is a multi-media specialist with Knox County Schools and writes this blog, Hall Pass, for the KCS website.

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