Buses powered by little feet are headed to Spokane schools this spring.
A movement led by Spokane Regional Health District to offer children guided walks to school is aimed at encouraging exercise and keeping kids safe.
“It also addresses the growing concern in our community around childhood obesity by providing our children with fresh air and exercise,” said Dr. Joel McCullough, the county health officer.
The health district received a Safe Routes to School grant last year to implement the walk-to-school program during the next three years at seven elementary schools. Two programs will start this spring, one at Holmes in Spokane’s West Central Neighborhood and the other at Seth Woodard in the West Valley School District. The other schools are Stevens, Logan, Bemiss and Moran Prairie elementary schools in Spokane, and Sunset in the Cheney School District.
Students will use what are called walking school buses – a chaperoned group of children using sidewalks as roadways, stopping at houses along the way to pick up students.
“It gets my legs pumped up,” said Holmes Elementary School fourth-grader Matthew Chambers, who participated in a Safe Routes to School pilot program last school year. His sister, Kyra, added, “It’s fun. You get to walk with friends.”
The siblings went on a walking school bus practice run Wednesday in advance of the program’s official April launch.
By walking or biking to school, students work out the wiggles and are alert and ready to learn, said Mariah McKay, the health district’s Safe Routes to School coordinator. Also, “it reduces behavior problems, increases academic achievement and prevents early onset diabetes.”
Childhood obesity rates have tripled in 30 years across the country while the number of kids walking or biking to school has fallen, health officials said. Finding ways to get children moving is critical.
About 25 percent of Spokane Public Schools’ students ride school buses, presenting an opportunity to encourage walking rather than riding.
The program is cheap: it’s volunteer driven, and parents and community members are asked to participate. All adults are given a thorough background check.
“This is a program that brings together education, transportation and improved health outcomes,” said Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, who is working to preserve funding for the Safe Routes to School programs. “It’s rare to have all three come together at once. It’s better for the environment and builds community.”
He said it also helps to build community because neighbors and families come together.
The program will go for nine weeks this spring and nine walks in the fall. Initially, the opportunity will be offered before school. Over the next three years, McKay expects to expand the routes to at least 21 and offer the option before and after school.
Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Shelley Redinger said the partnership with the health district is mutually beneficial.
“It provides an additional level of safety,” she said, “and a healthy lifestyle choice combination that we know has a direct, positive impact on our community.”
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