ST. ALBANS CITY — Every morning this month, students who live near the Messenger Street Senior Center, gather there and walk to St. Albans City School under the supervision of a couple parents.
These students are part of a pilot group, to see if walking to school everyday is a “viable option” for kids, according to the school’s wellness coordinator Mitch Craib.
“Its been going great,” Craib said. “I think they like it. They’d probably do more of it if they could.”
Next year, he hopes to have groups walking everyday to school in the warmer months, September, October, May and June, from the Barlow St. Community Center or Houghton Park too, “so other kids have the option.”
However, it all depends on the involvement of parents, according to Craib. “We need invested parents that are safe to lead groups,” he said.
Right now, school teachers lead the seven different walking routes on Walking Wednesdays.
Walking Wednesdays began four years ago when the school received federal funding from the Vermont Safe Routes to School Program.
Craib said city school was “initially hesitant” about becoming involved because there was a lot going on, including the implementation of a farm to school program.
“I was interested because my background is in exercise and sport science and I always walk places and get my son to walk to school,” Craib said. “It means a lot to me. I don’t think people get enough physical activity.”
Craib said after the initial hesitation, Principal Joan Cavallo “got on board in a big way,” and decided to have Walking Wednesdays once a month, except for October and May. During those, the school offers it every week.
Craib estimated it to be 16 or 17 days over the entire school year. “I’d like to have more, but the big challenge we found is that we depend on school teachers to lead our groups,” Craib said.
While teachers are up for doing around 15 to 20 walk to school days a year, they aren’t willing to commit to every Wednesday, according to Craib.
“We need to find a way to pay people to lead the walking school bus routes or find parents to do it,” he said. “Until this year, we haven’t really had luck finding parents that are willing.”
Craib said he promotes children walking to school because of the health, cost and environmental benefits.
Walking to school could fulfill a portion of the required physical activity a child needs each day, Craib said.
In addition, around 160 to 175 parents drive their kids to and from city school every day. “That’s a lot of traffic to a school that has school buses and sidewalks and really no need for this parent traffic,” Craib said.
According to data collected during the initial implementation of the safe routes program four years ago, 99 percent of children who attend city school live within a 2-mile radius. More than half of students live within a mile.
Craib acknowledged that the younger students, kindergarteners and first graders, need to be transported to school, but he was unsure why fifth graders and older weren’t walking to school.
If parents volunteered their time in the mornings to walk a group of students to school, that would take care of the issue of safety, Craib said.
At an elementary school in Washington State, improvements to the infrastructure encouraged more children to walk and bike to school, decreasing bus use from six buses to one. Transportation costs were reduced by an estimated $220,000 per year and over 85 percent of students now walk or bicycle to school.
If half of the students at an average-sized elementary school choose to walk to school, their impact would be a savings of 36 tons of greenhouse gas emissions a year, according to the National Center for Safe Routes to School. This is the equivalent of planting 1,000 trees.
“So the solution really is walking school buses,” Craib said. Nothing is finalized, but Craib hopes to have more people on board with the program next year.