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Hitting the streets for a Walk to School

Thousands of Colorado school children will hoof it to school on Wednesday as organizers of International Walk to School Day take steps to try to turn youngsters from car commuters into regular walkers and bike riders.

More than 230 schools across the state plan some sort of walking-related event this week. Nationwide, the day is expected to be marked by more than 3,500 events at participating schools. Some will do it just for the day, some for the week, and at least one Aurora school has designated October as Walk to School month.

The events are aimed at creating safer routes for walking or biking to school, and as a way for increasing physical activity. As a side benefit, increasing the number of students who walk to school will cut down on traffic congestion at schools, and eliminate the emissions coming from countless idling cars stuck in long lines waiting to drop off or pick up young riders.

Getting students out of the car and onto the pavement really has more to do with parental misgivings than youthful sloth. Promoters hope that by concentrating efforts to get families to try walking just once – even part-way, if their school is too far away to realistically walk there from home – those misgivings will evaporate.

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“The way we started doing this, with so many parents involved, very much set my mind at ease,” said Dayna Ashley-Oehm, parent of a fifth-grader at Prospect Valley Elementary School in Wheat Ridge.

“Now I let my daughter walk home from school, even when I can’t walk home with her. We’ve crossed that street so many times, the kids know what the risks are, they know to watch for cars, to walk in groups.”

At Prospect Valley, about half the 500 students are expected to participate. Volunteers will be stationed at various intersections near the school to provide safety and to offer kids incentives, such as granola bars.

For Ashley-Oehm, the 20-minute walk to and from school with her daughter each day has become a cherished ritual.

“There’s a gang of students and parents on our street, and we’ve been walking religiously for four years,” she said. “Walk to School Day is what brought us together. We had so much fun doing it on that particular day, we established it as the norm.”

Elsewhere in Colorado, different schools are trying different strategies.

Walk to School Month at High Point

High Point Academy, a charter school in Aurora, has declared October Walk/Bike to School Month – but school officials say the push to get kids walking won’t end come November.

That’s in keeping with the school’s commitment to wellness. Its snack policy permits only fresh fruits and veggies and water in the classrooms, and every student takes physical education three times a week. Last month, High Point received a HealthierUS School Challenge Award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, recognizing its stringent nutritional and physical activity requirements. To date, only 35 schools in Colorado have received the award.

“We’ll keep on doing this,” said school principal Terry Croy Lewis, who estimates about 25 percent of the school’s 730 students walk at least part-way to school. “It’s good for the students, and it’s good for the carpool congestion. The winter months will be more challenging, but we’ll just encourage them to dress appropriately. My hat’s off to the parents who are doing this, who park their cars several blocks away and walk to meet their children. They’re really embracing our wellness policy.”

First time for Thornton’s Skyview Elementary

At Skyview Elementary in Thornton, physical education teacher Travis Crouch has organized that school’s first-ever Walk to School Day.

“‘Why now?’ you ask,” Crouch said. “It’s just one of those things. An announcement came across my desk and I decided I’d do it.”

Skyview will have parents stationed around the neighborhood with balloons and students with signs promoting the benefits of walking or biking to school.

“This is as much for the parents as it is for the students,” Crouch said. “If they do this walk, and they feel it will be safe, we might see more students walking to school as opposed to being driven. I think it will be a good event.

“We have teachers and staffers signed up to walk with the kids. We’ll have five stations from seven to 14 minutes away from school, and when the kids get into the gym, they’ll get to sign a banner saying they walked to school.”

Tires-n-Tennies Tuesdays in Loveland

In Loveland, eight elementary schools are launching a six-month-long Tires-n-Tennies Tuesdays program. The schools will keep a log of how many students walk or bike – or somehow get to school in some way that doesn’t involve riding in a personal vehicle on Tuesdays. Students who log 15 such Tuesdays will win a bike light. The two schools with the vest participation rate will win an inflatable maze for a “fun and fitness” day at the end of the year.

Now in its fourth year, the Tires-n-Tennies Tuesdays program has already clocked some significant success, said Shelley Aschenbrenner, engineering technician for the city of Loveland and coordinator of the program.

At the five elementary schools that participated last year, an average of 39 percent of students walked on Tuesdays, 11 percent rode their bikes, 7 percent rode buses, 7 percent carpooled and 7 percent rode scooters or skateboards. Just 29 percent came to school in family vehicles.

“It’s been really good. A lot of what we hear from parents is the fear of stranger danger. So with a walking school bus, we can provide safety in numbers and greater visibility,” said Aschenbrenner.

She acknowledged Loveland launched the program just so the city would meet eligibility requirements for a federal grant to improve infrastructure. The city now has won two Safe Routes to School grants, but even if those grants hadn’t been awarded, Aschenbrenner figures the program would be considered a success.

“It’s really brought a lot of collaboration of groups who were already doing pedestrian and bike safety. We’ve brought them together,” she said.

Walking and Wheeling Wednesday in Boulder Valley

At Boulder Valley’s Louisville Elementary School, Walking and Wheeling Wednesday was started five years ago. For four Wednesdays in the fall and four in the spring, kids are encouraged to walk or bike to school.

“Some families do need to drive,” said Sara Fontaine, mother of a second-grader at Louisville, and co-chair of the Walking and Wheeling Wednesday committee. “So we hope to convince them to park a few blocks away and walk the remainder of the way. Kids really are the ones to encourage their parents to let them bike and walk.”

Of the school’s 540 students, Fontaine estimates about 350 regularly walk or bike to school.

“I’m really appreciative of parents who make the effort to do this, even when it’s not convenient,” she said. “They say that a quarter of our morning traffic congestion is the result of people bringing their kids to school. So if we can reduce that number, the impact will be felt in the much broader community, not just kids at school.”

Louisville Elementary is one of 34 Boulder Valley schools participating in Walk to School Day. Eight of those schools have declared this Walk to School Week. They’re taking part in the district’s Shoot the Moon program.

“The children are keeping track of their trips they travel to and from school, and they’re counting their steps. Our goal is to track enough steps to travel to the moon,” said Julie Ireland, a consultant for special projects for the school district.

That’s a lot of steps – something on the order of 478 million.

“I know, that’s not realistic,” she said. “But we just wanted a lofty goal.”

Will participating in a day or even a week of walking to school really impact students’ long-term behavior? Ireland isn’t sure, but she suspects it will.

“It’s a small step toward making a positive change, and it’s honoring a tradition from the past,” she said. “We’re reintroducing the idea that you can walk to school. I think as we take these steps, they’ll add up. It’s a piece of the pie. Other things need to accompany it as well, of course.”