First Person

How to get kids walking and biking to school

More than a dozen bikes were parked in front of Rose Hill Elementary School one recent morning, and principal Samara Williams eyed them with pleasure.

bicyclesThat translated into roughly a dozen fewer cars clogging the Commerce City school’s small driveway, dropping off and picking up children. And a dozen youngsters who got a good morning’s exercise peddling them to school.

“We’re a neighborhood school, and most kids live within a one-mile radius,” said Williams. “We want them to walk or ride their bikes.”

To help encourage that, Rose Hill partnered this year with Bicycle Colorado to bring in a Safe Routes to School training program. Safety coordinators came in to teach the youngsters about bike safety, and to present them with free bike helmets. After completing the training, the children got to participate in a “bike rodeo” to show off their bike handling skills.

Related story
Read an earlier EdNews’ story about Safe Routes to School.

Bicycle Colorado, a statewide nonprofit bicycle advocacy organization, is one of the state’s leading recipients of Safe Routes to School funds, which are administered through the Colorado Department of Transportation. In 2010, more than $2 million in federal SRTS grants will fund more than two dozen projects around the state.

The really big-ticket items involve improved infrastructure to make pedestrian pathways around schools safer. But the grants also fund less-costly education and encouragement programs to get more students to walk or ride their bikes to school.

Since 2005, Bicycle Colorado has aggressively sought those funds to allow it to partner with school districts, health departments and other municipal groups to promote bike safety classes, bike clubs and other kid-friendly enticements.

healthy schools and bike to schoolThis year, Bicycle Colorado is conducting programs in six school districts, including Adams 14, Adams 12, Denver, Boulder Valley, Poudre School District in Fort Collins, and Calhan schools. Elsewhere, other groups – such as Boltage in Boulder and the P.E.D.A.L. Cycling Club of Loveland – are also partnering with schools and other community groups to boost bike ridership and walking through a variety of programs and approaches.

“We’re looking to reverse a national trend in the number of students biking and walking to school,” said Dave Cowan, Education Director of Bicycle Colorado. “It’s about a quarter of what it was in the 1960s. It’s really a startling number. In the 1960s, 60 to 70 percent of students who lived within two miles of school walked or biked. Now it’s down to 14 percent.”

The reasons for such low bike ridership vary, depending on a given school’s demographics and location. So do the strategies for boosting it.

Different schools, different approaches

“In the wealthier schools districts, you might have a lot more parent involvement, more stay-at-home moms who are willing to get involved with programs to encourage kids to walk or bike to school,” said Jenna Berman, Education Program Manager for Bicycle Colorado.

“But in those districts, parents may be invested in having chosen a different school for their child, and they drive their kids to school. Whereas in a place like Commerce City, the kids will go to the school in the neighborhood.”

Cowan said Bicycle Colorado customizes its approach for different districts.

bike to school and healthy schools“The students in some schools have a lot of access to bicycles,” he said. “Then we emphasize the bicycling piece of it. But in other districts, the kids either don’t have bikes, or there’s a fear of the bikes being stolen if they bring them to school, so we emphasize the pedestrian angle more, organize ‘walking school buses,’ develop maps for recommended walking routes.”

At Rose Hill, biking was emphasized even before the school partnered with Bicycle Colorado this year to do a Safe Routes to School program. Every kindergartner at the school gets a free bicycle, and bikes are also given away at monthly assemblies. Williams said the school adopted a wellness program two years ago to battle the childhood obesity epidemic.

“I’ve had parents come up and thank me,” she said. “They’ve embraced the emphasis on biking and on exercise. They’ll say, ‘I didn’t know what to do about my child being chubby.’ ”

Reaching out to middle schoolers

In Denver, Bicycle Colorado has partnered with Denver Health for several years now to promote the DPS Rides program, a bike safety program for elementary schools. Last year, the program was expanded to include Lake Middle School. This year, DPS Rides On – the middle school curriculum – will also be in Kunsmiller and Smiley.

“It’s a little tougher to get access to the kids in middle school,” Berman said. “At Lake, they have an after-school program run by Mi Casa, so we partnered with them to create an after-school bike club.”

Participants got six weeks of advanced bike safety instruction, and went on regular group bike outings. Those who attended all the safety classes got a free bicycle at the end of the program.

Quotable
“In the 1960s, 60 to 70 percent of students who lived within two miles of school walked or biked. Now it’s down to 14 percent.”
–Dave Cowan, Bicycle Colorado

Eddie Romero, a 7th grader Lake Middle School, took part in the bike club last year, and he can’t wait to do it again this year.

“I wanted to get more exercise last year, and I did,” he said. “I really like riding bikes. On the last day our club met, we went to a park far, far away and rode our bikes all the way, and we ate Subway when we got there.”

Cody Buchanan, assistant manager of the after-school programs for Mi Casa Neighborhood Center, which is located within Lake, said it was “a huge treat” for kids at the low-income school to take home a mountain bike.

“A majority of our kids were already riding their bikes around the neighborhood anyway, so the big thing was to teach them to ride safely so they aren’t a danger to themselves or others,” Buchanan said.

“We’re looking at a different incarnation of the bike club here for next spring,” he added. “They’ll furnish us with another set of bikes we can have to run the program, and we’ll really look for the kids in last year’s club to step up as leaders.”

A high-tech alternative

In Boulder, a different model has emerged. Boltage – formerly known as Freiker (short for “frequent biker) – uses some high tech to track the number of kids who bike or walk to school, and keeps a running tally that’s accessible on the internet. Students win awards based on the number of bike or walking trips they log.

It all began several years ago when Boulder software engineer Rob Nagler wanted to encourage his young children to ride their bikes to school. He started offering them incentives – their choice of a small trinket for every five days they pedaled to school. It worked.

Other youngsters at his children’s school, Crest View Elementary, found out about the Nagler kids’ deal. Nagler – who biked with his children to school every day – handed out punch cards to the other student bikers. For every 10 punches, they, too, got to select a trinket.

bike to school and healthy schoolsSoon, Nagler determined there was a better way to do this than hanging out in front of school every day, punching kids punch cards. Four years ago, he built the first “freikometer,” a wireless, solar-powered radio frequency identification (RFID) tag reader.

Riders were given tags to attach to their backpacks. When they rode under the freikometer, the trip was counted and the data uploaded to a website.

“Once we had that technology, other schools heard about it. It was a technology we could put in other schools,” said Zach Noffsinger, a Boulder attorney who also serves as vice president of Boltage.

A few more technological improvements, and now the system can read the chips on participants’ backpack tags. It not only logs the trip but calculates the distance each student has traveled. Parents can go online to see how many trips their children have taken.

Today, freikometers – now called “zaps,” – have been installed in 32 schools nationwide, up from 13 in the spring. Six are in Colorado: Crest View and Foothill elementaries in Boulder, Burlington Elementary in Longmont, Casey Middle School in Boulder, Monroe Elementary in Denver and Calhan Elementary in Calhan. Noffsinger said a seventh is likely to be added soon.

To learn more

The technology isn’t cheap. The first-year expenses are $5,090, which includes purchase of the zap, 500 RFID tags and one year of software use and support. After the first year, it costs $950 a year to use the software.

“I have no doubt that the price tag is a barrier to some schools,” Noffsinger said. “But we’re certainly seeing plenty of demand out there, and I think it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Frankly, we don’t do a lot of marketing. We had over a 100 percent increase in the number of participating schools this year, and mostly it was just through word of mouth.”

“Freiker” became “Boltage” earlier this year to better reflect the program’s changing focus, Noffsinger said.

“Freiker was the name of our prototype system,” he said. “But it’s short for ‘frequent biker,’ and we needed to change the name to reflect a broader active transportation focus. We’ve really moved into the realm of walking as well as biking now.”

The results have been nothing short of astounding. On the first day of school at Crest View, 140 students logged a bike or walking trip to school. That’s more than a quarter of the student body.

“When the program at Crest View started, there were maybe six bikes parked in front of the school. The bike racks had tumbleweeds growing around them,” Noffsinger said. “Now they’ve installed 14 bike racks, and they’re continually adding more and we completely fill them up.

“In terms of tracking the kids, we saw a doubling of kids riding their bikes to school after we started the program, and we’ve seen great increases at other schools as well.”

Rebecca Jones can be reached at [email protected]

Related story
Read an earlier EdNews’ story about Safe Routes to School.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.