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How Rural Districts Can Build a 'Safe Routes to School' Program

Cross-posted from Rules For Engagement.

By Evie Blad

Safe Routes to Schools programs have gained attention in recent years as schools around the country seek to promote physical activity for their students. The programs are multi-pronged approaches that incorporate grant funding, infrastructure upgrades, adult supervision, and new district policies to ensure children have a safe and convenient way to walk or bike to school. They have been championed as a way to combat child obesity and restlessness that can distract students from classroom activities, but they've largely been seen as a solution for urban areas.

Are Safe Routes to Schools programs realistic for rural communities, which are often sprawling, less population-dense, and split by busy highways? A new fact sheet by Change Lab Solutions suggests that the barriers aren't as great as they may seem. "In rural communities, nearly 40 percent of trips are less than three miles long, and half of these are less than a mile," the fact sheet says."There is high potential to increase walking and bicycling within these trips." And the need for such programs is great, says the brief, funded by California-based Ca4Health.

"Childhood obesity is at epidemic levels nationally, but obesity rates are far higher for rural children, especially those who are low income," the fact sheet says. "According to the results of one study, rural children have nearly double the odds of obesity as compared to that of children living in metropolitan areas. Obesity matters because it is associated with a range of negative health conditions--diabetes, cancer, strokes, mental health issues, and more. Getting regular physical activity decreases rates of obesity and supports good health. Research demonstrates that children who walk or bicycle to school have higher levels of physical activity and better cardiovascular fitness than those who do not."

Here are some of the fact sheet's best practices for building Safe Routes in rural areas. 

Use adult supervision in high-traffic areas, like highways

"Many rural communities are divided by a state highway or other thoroughfare that students must cross to get to school," the fact sheet says."Policies can promote (and outline expectations for) volunteer or paid crossing guards and student safety patrols. These policies can improve safety and increase families' comfort with their children walking or bicycling to school. Crossing guards may be employed by school districts or by local police departments or other agencies. Effective crossing guard policies and programs provide a system for hiring, funding, training, locating, supervising, and properly equipping crossing guards and student safety patrols."

Assess recommended routes to school

Schools can create maps for parents that outline the safest routes and potential hazards, and that help local governments identify areas that may need repair or attention, the fact sheet says.

Remote drop-off sites

There are rural school districts, and then there are RURAL school districts. One tiny school system I wrote about in Arkansas, for example, was geographically quite large and had a very small enrollment--the result of two districts merging after falling below the state's minimum number of students. That district, which argued for more transportation funding, once invited state lawmakers on a hilly busride that went on for more than an hour to show the challenges students faced in getting to school.

Could that type of a district have a Safe Route to School  program? Maybe. The fact sheet suggests that, when bus transportation is required for students to get to school, those buses may not have to take them the whole way there.

"Long distances mean that some students are likely to require busing or personal automobiles to get to school," it says. "Districts can adopt policies that replace part of the ride with a walk. One such approach is to have school buses and parents drop off children at 'remote drop-off sites' several blocks from the school, providing a short, safe walk to school. A complementary approach situates bus stops a short walking distance away from students' homes."

What do you think?

Farm kid, here. I grew up in a rural area in a house off of a busy highway, and many of my peers lived on dirt roads. While some of these suggestions seem really practical, concerns like large expanses of road without sidewalk seem like tough hurdles to jump over. What do you think? Are Safe Routes realistic in rural areas?

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