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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Walking School bus program empowers volunteers, children alike

UPDATED: Mon., April 13, 2020

Walking School Bus volunteer  Sarah Potter assists students across Montgomery Avenue on Sept. 19, 2018. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Walking School Bus volunteer Sarah Potter assists students across Montgomery Avenue on Sept. 19, 2018. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane’s Walking School Bus program has the potential to be a force for social change, according a study published recently by a sociology professor at Gonzaga University.

The program, which allows college students and volunteers to escort low-income students from home to school, was created thanks to a federal grant received in 2014. It currently serves six elementary schools, mostly located in northeast Spokane.

The Spokane Regional Health District provides training, maps and other materials, but it’s the volunteers who provide the boots-on-the-ground work – keeping children safe while getting them to school in time for breakfast and the first-period bell.

However, a three-year study by Joe Johnston, an assistant professor of sociology and criminology, indicates the bonds formed by the youngsters and the volunteers could be even more important.

After analyzing three years of semester-long writing assignments by participating undergraduates, Johnston looked for patterns in three tenets of critical community-engaged learning.

They included authentic relationship development between the undergrads and youngsters, empowerment of younger students as they related to adults, and social-change orientation – how the GU students felt their previous perceptions of public schools had changed because of their experience.

Over the course of the study, which ran from 2017 through 2019, Johnston found as students moved through the program, their reflection moved increasingly toward social change.

As one student wrote, “Looking back on the decisions and sacrifices my parents made to give me a ‘good’ education also reflect how tough it is to find a balance between honoring the resources available to you while also combating complacency and the perpetuation of inequality.

“I think when elements of our society no longer seem seamless or normal, the door to change has been opened. I’m hoping to continually crack this door further and further, in big and small ways, throughout the rest of my life.”

While the study is largely anecdotal, Johnston sees the potential for greater awareness of social inequality through the Walking School Bus.

Through those daily walks, undergrads have bonded with the children, who in turn have felt empowered to lead conversations – “Where it’s about them teaching us and being equal partners with instead of us being the authority figures,” Johnston said.

“They really get to know the families and the youth in a deep way,” said Johnston, who added that the sociology of education “is interested in not only what goes on in school but what goes on outside of school.”

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