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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Walking School Bus helps Spokane children get to school and instills confidence

Sometimes a child needs more than a helping hand.

And often, that hand must reach all the way to the child’s front door and pull that child on to the right path.

The Walking School Bus is all of that and more, a partnership between the Spokane Regional Health District, Spokane Public Schools and volunteers from throughout the community.

Thanks to dozens of volunteers, it helps young children – those who live too close to school for a conventional bus ride – find their way safely to school and hopefully toward a better life.

For many youngsters at Logan Elementary, getting there is half the battle.

Absenteeism rates at Logan and neighboring Stevens Elementary are the highest in the city. All students at both schools are eligible for free or reduced-price breakfasts and lunches.

The idea: Getting the body out the door and giving it a wholesome breakfast will feed the mind as well.

“Part of this is about making kids want to go to school, the notion that school is an avenue to success,” said Logan principal Brent Perdue.

This fall the Walking School Bus helps bridge the gap.

Grants fund the program, but the legwork – quite literally – is performed by volunteers such as Gonzaga University students Sarah Potter and Whitney Tembry-Sturtevant.

Along with half a dozen classmates, they arrive at Logan at 7 a.m. to gather supplies, don orange vests and trek three-quarters of a mile to their first stop.

Not far away, student volunteers from the University of Washington medical school are doing the same thing at Stevens Elementary.

Perdue arrives at the same time, marveling at the sight. “When a lot of college kids are sleeping in until 9 a.m., they’re ready,” Perdue said.

“You see it in their faces. They come in with smiles and get everyone off to a great start,” Perdue said.

At 7:30 on a chilly Wednesday morning, the Walking School Bus arrives at the 1300 block of East Baldwin Avenue. Two hundred yards and a world away sits Avista headquarters.

But on East Baldwin, many parents in the low-income neighborhood lack the means to bring their children to school.

At the first stop, single father Justin Richards emerges with daughter Kaydence, a kindergartner who wiggles down the steep stairs to greetings from the “bus,” as her dad calls it.

“It’s a big weight off my shoulders,” said, Richards, a veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. “It makes a huge difference.”

With Kaydence in tow, the bus moves half a block to its next stop, which lasts about 10 minutes as four children inside struggle to get dressed and out the door.

Potter makes the most of the break by engaging with Kaydence, whose nervous energy hasn’t abated.

“I think a lot of this is about being one more adult figure who can reach out to these children about the importance of going to school,” said Potter, a sophomore from Kent, Washington, who also is involved with mentoring other elementary students.

“When you walk with them every day, you get to see how they interact, how they say goodbye to their parents – you get to see them at a new level,” Potter said.

She also sees them with a critical eye. On a 45-degree morning, some children emerge clad only in a shirt, but Potter brings a backpack filled with caps and gloves.

The journey continues through busy streets manned by crossing guards. Their path – always on sidewalks and away from the homes of registered sex offenders – has been pre-selected by Safe Routes to School Spokane, a program overseen by the health district and supported with funding from the Washington State Department of Transportation.

The lack of funding limits the program to 10 weeks in the fall and eight weeks in the spring.

However, according to Jenny Arnold, a public health educator with Spokane Regional Health, the supervised walks give the children confidence in a familiar route.

They also make friends in the community.

“The beauty of walking the same route every day is that the neighbors become very engaging,” Arnold said. “Sometimes they’ll wave at us.”