OLYMPIA - Every Wednesday, in sneakers, on bikes, and occasionally with pets, the "walking bus" strolls through Denise Pantelis' and Paul Brewster's neighborhood northeast of Pioneer Elementary School.
Pantelis and Brewster are among the parents involved in organizing the “walking bus.” The program is one part of the school’s participation in a regional program called “Walk and Roll,” which encourage families to find alternatives to driving to school.
Families organize the night before to arrange for one Pioneer family to start the route and walk through their neighborhood, picking up students and parents on the way to the school. When the group reaches Henderson Boulevard, the entire “bus,” which can number two dozen or more students from grades kindergarten through fifth, crosses at once.
“I think some parents have the idea that driving is more convenient,” Brewster said.
But parents involved in the walking bus say that walking is less hectic than driving, allows for more conversation and children arrive at school more alert, because of the 10 minutes of exercise as they reach school.
ALTERNATIVES TO DRIVING
“We really want to reach the elementary age students,” said Brewster, an associate planner with the Thurston Regional Planning Council. “By the time they reach high school, they develop their habits, and we want them to know that there are buses, bikes and walking. There are alternatives to having your parents drive you everywhere.”
“In our neighborhood, there’s no reason for kids not to walk to school,” Pantelis said. “We have not only Pioneer, but Washington Middle School and Olympia High School are also within walking distance.”
Also, with the walking bus, some parents feel more secure in knowing their children are navigating the neighborhood and crossing the streets with other children and adults, Pioneer Principal Chris Woods said.
Woods said there are some families who do not let their children walk to school alone, but allow their children to participate in the walking bus.
The walking bus is just one of the programs that Pioneer uses to encourage alternatives to cars. The school has monthly competitions between classrooms, participates in the Intercity Transit bicycle commuter competition, and educates families on bicycle safety and safe walking routes, he said.
Brewster’s and Pantelis’ neighborhood, which is northeast of the school, has the largest group participating in a walking bus, Woods said, but other Pioneer neighborhoods have also adopted the idea.
Two other Olympia elementary schools, Madison and Roosevelt, also have been participating in the Walk and Roll program, organized by the Thurston Regional Planning Council, Intercity Transit, and the city and school district. This is the third year that the planning council has run the program, which has been funded in different years with grants through the state departments of Health and Transportation.
In total, Walk and Roll has earned $25,000 in grants, said Kathy McCormick, senior planner with the planning council.
The program has planned walking routes for children and provided walking or biking incentives, such as a hot chocolate at school at the end of a cold morning commute.
“The goal of the program is to develop a generation of healthy walkers,” McCormick said. “It combats obesity, and promotes the health of kids. It reduces the number of parents driving kids to school, which improves the air quality and safety around the school.”
Pantelis said it can take some effort to organize the Wednesday morning walks. She said that on other days, some families walk together in a less formal way.
She said parents going along for the walk is important to making sure the “walking bus” makes it to school.
“Sometimes, the kids stop and talk and you need to move it along,” she said.
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