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Schools Celebrating International Walk to School Day Today

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What's one simple, underrated weapon in the ongoing fight against childhood obesity?

Having students walk or bike to school instead of driving them.

With that in mind, students across the country were taking part in International Walk to School in the USA day this morning, an activity connected to the federal Safe Routes to Schools program.

More than 3,700 schools in all 50 states registered online to say they'd be participating.

The first National Walk Our Children to School Day took place in Chicago in 1997 and was sponsored by the Partnership for a Walkable America, according to the website.

In 2005, Congress funded the Safe Routes to Schools program for states to establish walk-to-school programs. Since then, the program has received $820 million, with about 11,000 grants going to schools in every U.S. state.

In 2010 and 2011, the Safe Routes to School program received funding for projects in 19 states and the District of Columbia.

According to figures from the National Center for Safe Routes to School, 48 percent of children in 1969 walked or bicycled to school, and 87 percent of students who lived within a mile of school did so.

But by 2009, only 13 percent of children walked or biked, and only 35 percent within a mile did. Forty-two percent of those who live within a mile of school were driven to school by their parents.

So, you can see why a program like Safe Routes to School exists, and why it would create a day like National Walk to School Day. (Our friends at Education News Colorado have a profile of how Colorado schools were expected to mark the day.)

Better yet: In 2006, the International Walk to School Committee decided to promote Walk to School for the entire month of October. It's been Walk to School month ever since.

Skeptics Remain

But parents in one community in Minnesota remain skeptical of the Safe Routes to School program's overall impact, citing the fact that not a single student walks at their 620-student elementary school.

When asked why students aren't walking to school, parents told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that students fear crime and harsh winters. The parents said that many schools were built to discourage walking, so no amount of sidewalks would make a difference.

The Pioneer Press noted that in 2001, 13 percent of children nationwide were walking and biking to school, and that the figure hadn't changed eight years later, despite the Safe Routes to School program already existing for four years at that point.

Deb Hubsmith, the director of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, told the paper that the flattening of that rate of walkers/bikers was actually a good thing, as they had managed to stop the decrease.

But, to this point, there's no national evidence that the Safe Routes to Schools program has increased the number of students who walk and bike to school.

Walk-to-School Strategies

The topic of walker- and biker-friendly cities came up repeatedly at the recent Leadership for Healthy Communities Childhood Obesity Prevention Summit in Washington.

Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett and North Carolina state Sen. William Purcell both stressed the importance of working with city planning commissions to design walker- and biker-friendly cities.

Margo Pedroso, the deputy director of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, moderated a panel on out-of-school activities that promote physical activity. Pedroso said the country could spend $200 million per year on a Safe Routes to Schools investment, or pay $26 billion combined for the cost of busing and having parents drive their children to school.

On the same panel was Cynthia Matus Morriss, a school board member from the very small, rural Patagonia (Ariz.) Elementary School District, who introduced a concept that drew plenty of interest from the audience: the walking school bus.

Starting in 2007, Morriss' district organized "Walking Wednesdays" for their elementary students. Buses would drop students off at a centralized location in the town (in Morriss' case, the town hall), and the students would walk nearly a half mile to school, accompanied by teachers, parents, or other chaperones.

In 2007, "Walking Wednesdays" averaged 18 students. It was such a success that it expanded to a twice-a week program after the 2008 school year.

Morriss said that after the program had been in place for a while, students almost began feeling pressured to go each week, to make sure they didn't miss out on an opportunity to socialize with their classmates.

Safe Routes to School recommends walking school buses as a strategy to encourage students to skip the car and walk to school.

But if walking school buses aren't a possibility for your district, you could also try the recommended mileage club strategy. Typically, children in the club will track the number of miles that they've walked or biked, and after they reach a certain threshold, they either receive a small gift or a chance to win a prize.


Photo: Mark Weeks walks his daughters Claire, 5, a kindergartener, left, and Sarah, 8, a 3rd grader, across the parking area and into Bailey Elementary in Woodbury, Minn. Of 620 students at Bailey, not one walks - not even those who live one block away. Managers of a 6-year-old federal program think they know why. Children don't walk to schools like Bailey because of the lack of sidewalks and safe street crossings. (John Doman/The St. Paul Pioneer Press/AP)

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