On Wednesday, October 3, the usual crossing guards at Copper Creek Elementary School in Glendale, Arizona, were missing. In their place were other familiar, albeit furrier, faces: Howler and Big Red, the mascots for local sports teams NHL Phoenix Coyotes and NFL Arizona Cardinals.
“Last year we started introducing honorary crossing guards. They definitely get [the kids] excited and motivated,” says Sarah Leverenz, Copper Creek’s safety chair.
It was day three of Copper Creek’s Walk and Bike to School Week and the focus was on fitness. Some 450 participants were clad in purple, black or red T-shirts—according to their sports loyalties—and rewarded with plastic feet, which they collect throughout the year.
Copper Creek is one of 50 elementary schools in this Valley suburb west of Phoenix. Bike paths and trails enhance the newer, planned community, yet a culture of driving persists. Four years ago, Leverenz was recruited for the school’s Safe Routes to School planning committee to help promote walking and bicycling.
“My kids walk to school every day,” says Levernez, a mother of two. “I get so frustrated with parents who drive their kids two blocks.”
During her research, Leverenz ran across the International Walk to School website and discovered a global community dedicated to encouraging kids and parents to put down their car keys and walk or bike to school.
The International Walk to School movement began in Chicago in 1997 in an effort to rally community members and increase support for more walkable communities. Within five years, communities in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, plus dozens of countries ranging from Iceland to Fiji, were on board. While motivations differ from place to place—some are inspired by environmental concerns, others to reduce crime and reclaim neighborhoods—all are committed to building a more walkable world one community at a time.
“Our biggest goal was safety,” says Leverenz, citing traffic congestion in and around the school. “Second was to get kids moving. Research shows that kids who walk and bike to school do better in morning classes. If we can incorporate a walk every day, that’s huge.”
Beyond the annual event, designated safe routes to and from local elementary schools are published in newsletters, featured online and, at Copper Creek Elementary School, sent home with kids to share with their families. To maintain momentum throughout the rest of the year, Copper Creek also initiated Friday Fun Run and Walking Wednesdays.
The results have been promising. Leverenz notes a marked difference in terms of congestion and traffic near the school. Perhaps most importantly, Glendale’s efforts appear to be increasing physical activity among all residents. Town-wide assessments show an overall two percent increase in walking and bicycling since annual Walk and Bike to School events began in 2004.
Beyond the International Walk to School website, which Leverenz calls a “great resource,” her biggest advice is to get the kids involved.
“The first year parents were doing a lot of the work,” Leverenz says. “Now we’re involving the student councils. They’re making posters, handing out the feet and introducing the celebrities. They’ve taken on more of an ownership. Hopefully, now they’re the ones saying to their parents, ‘Come on, let’s walk to school.’”
Resources and Related links:
Check out all the other countries that are walking to school this month at http://www.iwalktoschool.org/whoswalking/
The National Center for Safe Routes to School is a centralized clearinghouse featuring case studies of successful local initiatives and a comprehensive online guide for implementing a sustained walk to school program.
KidsWalk-to-School website developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, provides helpful hints for community members and health officials on promoting walking school buses and other activities.