Students within walking distance of the William D'Abate Elementary School in the Olneyville section of Providence, Rhode Island were not always able to get to school on time. They had to navigate littered sidewalks in disrepair and busy intersections without crossing guards. Scheduling difficulties for hard working parents meant that some children had to get themselves and their siblings to school on their own.
The Walking School Bus changed all that. With two routes, nearly three dozen elementary school students are transported to and from school every day via what is affectionately call "The D'Abate Express."
The Walking School Bus was created through the combined efforts of NeighborWorks member ONE Neighborhood Builders, the YMCA of Greater Providence and the William D'Abate Elementary School. The effort began in 2012 with a parent survey at the school about starting a bike or walk to school program. Parents overwhelming preferred a walk-to-school program. Next, a Road Safety Assessment (RSA) was conducted with city and school officials, and an action plan was created that would address some of the findings, such as new cross walk markings and school zone signs in the area next to the school.
In October 2015, the Walking School Bus launched with one route, a handful of students, a captain and two resident volunteers. A year later, it had already grown to two routes with four Walking School Bus leaders and a walking captain.
In addition to reducing absenteeism, the Walking School Bus promotes increased daily physical activity, and highlights the importance of increasing safety by improving streets and sidewalks. It helps children get to know each other and feel less isolated. And, it enhances the partnership between school and parents. Parents struggling with getting their children to school on time would often be defensive when the school principal called – with a solution to offer, the school is now an ally.
Students feel safer walking to and from school and have made new friends. "I am so excited to be a part of the Walking School Bus. I have so many more friends now, in different grades. Before the Walking School Bus, we would see each other in the hallway but never speak. Now, it's like we are family," says Rosemary, a Walking School Bus regular.
There are perks. Every Friday, students receive a healthy snack on their way home from school. Once a month, they are joined by a "celebrity walker" which has included the mayor, other elected officials and representatives from the police, health and the Rhode Island schools departments.