Walk This Way

Walking-, Biking-To-School Programs Expand Locally

Posted: September 21, 2013

Keister Elementary School students high-five Becky Johnston (right), RMH community health promotion specialist, after arriving at school Friday. Keister is one of several area schools to initiate walking- or biking-to-school programs. (Photos by Nikki Fox / DN-R)
Of the children on one Keister school bus route, only two chose not to walk Friday morning.
Keister Elementary School students walk around the track on Friday morning after arriving at school.
HARRISONBURG — As a school bus pulled away from University Place on South Avenue just after 8 a.m. Friday, only a few tiny heads could be seen peeking out of the square windows.
 
The other 49 children from the neighborhood who normally climb onto the bus stood on the sidewalk, watching their classmates go.
 
On this Friday, those onlookers got their blood pumping with an early morning walk to school, joining an increasing number of students in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County biking or walking to school this year.
 
“It’s a fine day to walk to school,” said Nathan Barge, Harrisonburg City Schools’ coordinator for the Virginia Department of Transportation program known as Safe Routes to Schools. “Why would we ride the bus?”
 
Keister Elementary School’s new “walking school bus” is one of the permanent initiatives that has cropped up in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County to encourage walking or biking to school.
 
“Keister is a very good example of new initiatives happening this year,” said Becky Johnston, health promotion specialist at Rockingham Memorial Hospital, who works with schools on initiatives to combat childhood obesity. “I think that’s a huge way to get started [by fulfilling] their desire to have kids that live within a half-mile to actually walk from home.”
 
Last year, Harrisonburg City Public Schools started its first permanent walking-and-biking-to-school program at Waterman Elementary School.
 
That group, now called the Waterman Walkers, is encouraging families to walk their children to school, particularly on Wednesdays. About 40 kids partake in that initiative each week.
 
In addition to Keister’s new “walking school bus,” Thomas Harrison Middle School has started a Friday fitness event that encourages students to bike and walk to school. For the first event, which took place this month, about 80 kids biked to the west-side city school.
 
Keister’s next step will be to get more neighborhoods on board with walking to school.
 
City and county schools have been able to facilitate participation in such programs thanks to grants from the Safe Routes to Schools.
 
Safe Routes is a federal program administered by VDOT to pay for improved sidewalks, bike lanes and other pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, such as signs and signals.
 
In Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, four Safe Routes projects backed by $1.65 million in funding from the Safe Routes program have or are being completed at Keister, Waterman, Mountain View and Plains elementary schools.
 
According to Johnston, more Mountain View Elementary students are expected to begin walking to school as soon as infrastructure is completed.
 
Barge, during the September meeting of the city transportation safety and advisory commission, told members that Harrisonburg City Schools is performing a travel tally through Sept. 27 to gather data for Safe Routes grant applications. That study will find out how many students are walking and biking to school.
 
Barge said the division also has applied and hopes to secure funding to complete infrastructure projects near Stone Spring Elementary School.
 
From Oct. 7 to Oct. 11, eight schools will participate in exercising on their way to school as part of a national walk/bike to school week, which Johnston says will help raise awareness.
 
In the meantime, students who do have the opportunity to walk or bike to school are jumping on board with the initiative.
 
“It’s kind of fun,” said Nylan McCauley, 8, who walked with her mother, Fatima Jordan, to Keister on Friday morning. “I feel good [and] I get to talk with my friends.”
 
For more information about bike or walk to school events, contact Johnston at 568-7288 or at rsjohnst@sentara.com .
 
Contact Emily Sharrer at 574-6286 or esharrer@dnronline.com