In the small, rural town of Winton, California, the school district wanted to find a way to help kids walk or bike to school. Though the town’s three elementary schools and one middle school are only a mile or two apart, a lack of sidewalks and other infrastructure meant most parents drove their kids to school each day or had them ride the bus.
The fact that all three elementary schools released students at the same time each day complicated matters—parents driving to pick up their kids created a lot of traffic.
The Winton School District Superintendent asked Kristi Boesch, administrator on special assignment, to spearhead an effort to get more kids walking and biking to school.
Stephanie Nathan, supervising health educator for the Merced County Department of Public Health, said the Winton School District and the Merced Bicycle Coalition had helped build momentum over the summer of 2013 through grant-funded activities designed to promote active transportation. Kids had the opportunity to participate in bike rodeos, bike safety events, and, once the 2013-2014 school year began, in bike- and walk-to-school contests.
Boesch said one of the schools interviewed all their students and asked them how they arrived at school: by bike, on foot, on the bus, or by car. The school posted a huge display that showed how many students were using each mode of transportation, and the visual representation showed the school’s parents that the overwhelming majority were driving.
The schools also held a walk-to-school day, during which the principals walked to school with the kids, and families were invited to participate, as well. “That was a really fun day for the kids,” Boesch said.
Boesch also got funds to purchase 24 bicycles – 20 student bikes and four adult bikes – for each of the schools, along with the helmets, locks, and extra tubes those riders would need to ride safely. The principals were asked to distribute those bikes as they saw fit – some gave them to students who showed improvement in academics, and others to students “caught being a really good person.” She said she watched a huge smile blossom on the face of a little girl who was given the chance to pick out her very first bike.
“A lot of kids don’t have a bike, so now that we can give these away, more kids can ride,” Boesch said.
“There was all this momentum building for walking and bicycling in this community,” Nathan said. “We thought this would be a great time to put a policy in place.”
Building a Policy
In late September, Nathan began building her policy using the interactive Safe Routes to School District Policy Workbook, which walks users through a series of policy options to help build a customized Safe Routes to School policy, which can then be downloaded and used in their community.
“It was very user-friendly,” Nathan said. “I thought the beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels were very useful. I knew what things would fly and what things would not, and the tool let me push the envelope on a couple of aspects of the policy.”
Nathan had been trying to look up policies from other school districts on the Internet before she discovered the policy workbook, but found the tool’s guidance to be invaluable as she considered what options to include.
“What I really appreciated about the tool was that it made my job a lot easier in terms of finding appropriate language to use,” Nathan said. “The tool gave me different options for certain categories, and it didn’t take that long. It took me a couple of hours to put together a policy I felt was strong. I figured I would start with the options rated most strongly, and if I got pushback from the district, I could go back and choose one of the softer options.”
The policy Nathan built sailed right through the school board’s approval process. Boesch and Nathan presented it along with stories of how excited the students were to walk and bike to school, and that paved the way for a unanimous vote in the policy’s favor.
“I’ve been so grateful to be a part of this,” Boesch said. “It’s great to see all the smiles on the kids’ faces and to help them be more conscientious of what it is to be a little healthier.”
Photo credit: Merced County Public Health Department