Tuscan Elementary School in Maplewood (Essex County) powered up their walking engines and began their first Walking School Bus program on March 15th and 22nd.  Students with Tuscan pride, siblings with beaming smiles, school administrators, parents and even family pets were out walking to school together.  With a welcoming cool breeze in the air, students got their blood pumping and were energized as they were cheered on by local residents along their walk to school.

The walking school bus program was spearheaded by SRTS parent coordinators, Camilla Zelevansky and Candice Davenport (who was named a Citizen Placemaker by Project for Public Spaces). The two worked with Nora Shepard, Manager for the Safe Routes to School Program with Meadowlink, to get the program up and running. In January 2013, Nora helped to inspire the Tuscan Walking School Bus through a presentation on the lack of physical activity among children and the associated health risks.  As part of her presentation, Nora suggested walking and biking to school as a great way for students to get the healthy physical activity they need.  Nora’s presentation also focused on the bonus benefits for the parents as well.  While walking to school is a great way to energize children in the morning and leave them alert and prepared for school, it is also an opportunity for the students and their parents to network and get to know their community and the families that surround them.  Nora’s presentation facilitated an avenue for discussion and helped pave the way for Tuscan’s Walking School Bus program. Following the presentation, Camilla and Candice worked with PE Teachers Ted Panayoutou and Noelle Sullivan – as well as Marci Gordon, who supervises the Student Council – to coordinate the efforts both inside and outside the school to kick off the program.

By February 2013, Nora, Camilla, Candice and their team had put in a lot of work and had a Volunteer Walking School Bus “Driver” Application ready for parents who wanted to inspire change and serve as role models by walking children to school. Camilla and Candice spent numerous hours preparing a “driver” guide to make sure that all the leaders were aware of the general responsibilities, procedures, and the tracking, safety, cancellation and absenteeism policies. After a “driver” training session, parents, administration, school staff and leaders were on the same page and ready to get their feet fired up.

The entire school was excited about a healthy program that involves them walking to school and it was important for Camilla and Candice to get the whole community involved. 

“I think Cami and I believe this project is not only for our children but for the community and it is important that the community feels the project belongs to them as well.  That means getting everyone involved and sharing their assets- from the custodians at school to the students and teachers, to the parents, the crossing guards, and the school administration- everyone has an important role in making this project happen.” – Candice Davenport

The school staff,especially Physical Education Teachers Noelle Sullivan, Ted Panayoutou, and student council supervisor Marci Gordon, worked for months to get the school and students bustling with excitement about the walking school bus.  Community support and enthusiasm was also demonstrated by neighbors who used brightly colored lawn signs saying, “Tuscan Tigers Walk!”, to line the two walking school bus routes and to denote “bus stops.”  The walking school bus also generated excitement among the students, as evidenced by a creative third grader who designed a special “walking school bus” to wear with a friend on their way to school.  Though it was yellow with wheels and windows just like a regular school bus, this cardboard bus was marked on the side with “walking school bus” and was powered by the student’s feet the entire route to school. Camilla and Candice were both overwhelmed and delighted by the community support for the walking school bus program.

”I am greatly encouraged by the amount of support we are getting from the school, parents AND the neighborhood. People in general are welcoming of the positive nature of this program- that it’s convenient, safe, healthy and FUNWe have been receiving random thank you notes from people not in the program but to just cheer us on”-Camilla Foulks Zelevansky

The Walking School Bus students arrived at school joyful, energized and ready to take on the day.  The Safe Routes to School team was there to greet them with backpacks, stickers and bookmarks while parent volunteers met them with morning snacks of fruits, bagels, and chocolate milk. Over 25 students participated with the assistance of about 15 parent leaders. 

The walk and gathering at the school has already inspired change.  Parents who had driven their children to school have asked about registering their children for the Walking School Bus.  Candice Davenport has also noted a change within the children.

“As for a change in the children, I think that they are learning to see that we live in a walkable community and that walking is a viable and do-able form of transport. For some of our kids, this is the first time they have ever walked to school. I think it fosters for them a sense of independence and discovery of their community which you can only see from a walking perspective vs. a car.  I think they also feel good about walking as a form of exercise. I think they are pleasantly surprised when they arrive at school so quickly; time flies when you are talking and laughing with a friend.” –Candice Davenport

The children are finding inspiration from all angles to continue with this healthy program. The school’s Physical Education teachers are planning to build upon the momentum of the walking school bus program and encourage even more children to walk to school by starting a “Golden Sneaker” contest that awards the students in the class with the most walkers.  The walking school bus has been embraced by the whole community. The school staff has enthusiastically supported this collaborative healthy effort, the neighbors have opened their doors to cheer the students on, and parents have shown their support by walking and volunteering.  An idea as simple as walking has helped to bring the community together and get them moving in the right direction.

Special thanks to SRTS Coordinator Meeta Patel for putting this post together.  Great work Tuscan Elementary and great work Meadowlink!