Option 2: Reaching Out to More Children

Success with a simple walking school bus or a desire to be more inclusive may inspire the development of a more structured program. This could mean adding more routes, more days of walking or more children. These additions generally require a more formalized structure in order to coordinate, recruit volunteers and make decisions on other issues, such as safety training and liability.

Sometimes walking school buses are part of a Safe Routes to School program and therefore already have support and a group of people ready and willing to be involved. If no Safe Routes to School program exists, establishing a working group before initiating further steps can help move the process along. The school principal and administration, law enforcement and other community leaders will likely be involved along with the students and their parents.

Organizers can decide who will be responsible and how these steps will be used to start a structured program.

1. Determine the Amount of Support and Interest

Establish buy-in from parents, the school and other groups and get a sense of the number of families who might have interest in the program.

A. Support

At a minimum, secure support from parents and the school administration. If the walking school bus is part of a Safe Routes to School program, this support most likely already exists.

To reach parents, ask for time on the agenda of a PTA or PTO meeting to talk about the benefits of a walking school bus program and how it might work. Identify concerns and make a plan to address them. Also ask for names of people who want to be involved, both as working group members and as participants. For schools without PTAs, identify communication channels that the school uses to reach parents, such as open houses and school newsletters. See Resources: Recruitment for an example of gathering interest using print materials.

To gain support from school administration, present the idea to the school principal and discuss the benefits. Interested parents can help persuade the principal as well. If the principal has concerns, make a plan to address them.

Seek parents and school staff through other sources, too. The crossing guard supervisor, transportation director, school nurse and PE teacher could be important allies. Talk to parents who currently walk children to school or are generally physically active.

To build a network of support and ease the burden on the school, look for partners outside the school such as law enforcement officers, retired community members, local bicycling groups, traffic safety groups, public health professionals and other community leaders. Neighborhood association meetings can be a good way to reach community supporters as well as parents.

See Resources: Getting school and community support for more strategies and tools.

B. Interest

The level of interest among families and volunteers will determine the number of walking routes and how often they operate. Surveys and informal conversations are ways to gather information.

A written survey can be used to ask about interest in the walking school bus. Questions can also be included to locate potential volunteers and to discover reasons why families might not choose to participate. Surveys also provide a way to gather baseline data about how children arrive at school, which will be useful when documenting the program’s impact later.

A survey can be sent or e-mailed home, distributed at an evening school event such as Back to School Night and provided to parents who drop off or pick up their child. For examples, see Resources: Parent surveys.

Informal conversations with parents can also be a source of information, and may be an especially important way to reach families who do not speak English as a first language.

Inghram Elementary School, San Bernardino, CA

2. Identify the Walking School Bus Route(s)

Route selection will be influenced by:

  • Locations of interested families.
  • Routes that meet the safety considerations described in the Addressing Safety section, including considering where the group will walk; where the group will cross streets; how drivers behave; and how the neighborhood feels.
  • Routes to school already identified as part of a Safe Routes to School program.
  • Routes that include adult school crossing guards.
  • Locations of route volunteers.

Choose general meeting points or home-specific stops

Once the physical route is selected, the number of opportunities to join the walking school bus on the route will need to be determined. General meeting points require places large enough for several people to safely wait. Designating a meeting point with a parking lot provides an opportunity for families who live too far to walk to participate. Stopping at each child’s home makes it more convenient for parents who do not have to accompany their child to a general meeting point, but will require more time to walk the route and may be more difficult to keep children moving.

Take a test walk

Adults should walk the intended route to double check for any potential problems and make changes as needed. Walk the route with a child to help confirm how much time is needed.

3. Identify a Sufficient Number of Adults to Supervise Walkers

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend one adult per three children ages 4 to 6; one adult per six children ages 7 to 9; and fewer adults may be necessary for children ten years and older.

Opportunities for recruiting volunteers include:

  • When initially asking for support of the school and other groups.
  • When identifying interested families.
  • During Back to School night.
  • During school arrival and drop off.

Other methods for recruiting volunteers include:

  • Writing an article in the school newsletter or local newspaper.
  • Sending a letter home with children.
  • Asking other parents to spread the word.
  • Asking the school counselor/social worker, nurse and PE teacher for ideas.
  • Providing incentives such as gift cards to volunteers.
  • Contacting local community groups such as a senior citizen groups.

For an example letter, see Resources: Recruitment.

Selecting volunteers

Some programs, particularly those sponsored by schools, require a background check for each potential volunteer. Often the school district will have a system in place that can be used.

4. Prepare and Communicate

Before starting the walking school bus, volunteers may need information about pedestrian safety guidelines and walking school bus logistics and rules. Parents and children will need to know what’s expected of them when they participate.

A. Create a time schedule

Set the departure times for every “stop” on the route based on what was learned from the test walk. Be generous with time estimates as groups of children will move more slowly than a few adults or children. For large walking school buses and multiple routes, design routes and times so that groups do not arrive at busy intersections at the same time.

B. Train volunteers

Training topics vary depending on the school and community. Equipment may be provided that requires orientation or checkout, such as reflective vests and whistles. In general training includes a review of pedestrian safety and the route with tips on any areas that may require extra attention to traffic conditions. Sometimes local law enforcement officers can assist with educating volunteers about route details. For more information, see Resources: Safety tips, “Walking School Bus: Guidelines for Organizers.”

Volunteers will need other information based on how the program is set up. If a program has rules about the following topics then the training should inform volunteers about what is expected. Potential additional training topics include:

  • How to handle inappropriate child behavior.
  • Any supplies or equipment provided such as first aid kits or reflective gear.
  • Emergency procedures.
  • Inclement weather policy.
  • What to do if a route is blocked either temporarily or permanently.
  • What to do if the volunteer will be unable to lead the walking school bus on a particular day.
  • What to do if a child does not meet the walking school bus as expected.
  • Length of time to wait for late arrivals.
  • Parent contact information for each child.
  • What to do if a child who is not an official member of the walking school bus joins the group along the way.
  • How to track the number of participants.

Depending on how the walking school bus is set up, the training time can also be used to match volunteers to routes and/or specific days.

Westbrook Elementary School, Westbrook, ME

C. Communicate with families

Families need to know when the walking school bus will begin; rules; the route and meeting times. Some organizers choose to hold a meeting for families to meet and ask questions. For areas that do not currently have many walkers, neighbors who live on the route may be reminded to watch for pedestrians.

For parents

Depending on the program, parents may need the following information:

  • Where children will join the walking school bus.
  • Whether parents are required to walk with their child.
  • What to do if their child will be absent.
  • What to tell their child about pedestrian safety and appropriate behavior when walking to school.
  • Consent form for participation.
  • Late arrival policy.
  • School delay and inclement weather policy.

For children

Children need to know the following information:

  • Walking school bus rules. For examples, see Resources: Rules.
  • Pedestrian safety behaviors.

While rules for the walking school bus can vary by program, there are some pedestrian safety behaviors that all children should know. See the Addressing Safety section for pedestrian behaviors that children should know, including choosing where to walk and how and where to cross streets.

This information may be taught in a combination of the following ways:

  1. Parents receive tips to discuss with their children. Encourage parents to practice pedestrian safety skills with their children prior to participating in the walking school bus.
  2. Pedestrian safety training can be incorporated into classroom activities, physical education classes or special assemblies at the school.
  3. Walking school bus leaders review pedestrian safety and walking school bus rules with children.

D. Promote participation

Promoting the walking school bus can be a way to invite children or families to join or to recognize those that are participating. Ideas for promotion include:

  • School newsletter article.
  • Posters at the school.
  • Local news article.
  • Announcement through the PTA.
  • School e-mail or web site.
  • Neighborhood association meetings and communications.
  • Door-to-door invitations to participate.

Signs placed on the route remind drivers about the walking school bus.
Olive Chapel Elementary School, Apex, NC

5. Get Walking

A “walk to school day” event to encourage all families to walk or bicycle to school could be used to kick-off the walking school bus. Organizers can invite local media, the school principal and community leaders for the first walk. This can get the walking school bus off to an energized start and provides a way for some families to try out walking without a formal commitment. If they try it, they may like it and decide to join. Signage along the route can serve as promotion for the walking school bus and a reminder to drivers to watch for pedestrians. International Walk to School celebrations, held in October, provide an ideal time to launch a program. However, an event can be held at any time of year. See Resources: International Walk to School events for planning information, registration and pictures.

Keep walking, make adjustments as needed and have fun.