Early morning every Thursday, the parking lot of a Wal-Mart in Beaverton is hopping with children. It’s the meeting spot for students walking to Sexton Mountain Elementary School, about a mile away.
Kindergartners through fifth graders get out of their parents’ cars and flock to greet the expanding group of classmates standing around. They coo at a couple of dogs joining the walk.
At 8 a.m., this so-called walking school bus takes off, weaving through a mostly suburban, residential neighborhood as it picks up more students along its route. Kids run out of houses or jump out of cars that pull up next to the walking school bus; parents wave goodbye in the background.
Lynne Mutrie, coordinator of the Beaverton School District’s Safe Routes to School program, credits the success of this popular weekly walk to the commitment of the two people who have volunteered to lead it for the past eight years: Holly Heaver, a parent, and Jim Hayhurst, a second grade teacher.
The walking school bus started out with just Heaver, her two children and Hayhurst, who gets to school earlier than usual to meet the walking school bus at the parking lot.
“They do it every week and everyone knows that they're there,” said Mutrie. “And it just grew. But the consistency has really helped throughout the eight years it's been running.”
On average, about 30 kids join each week. On rainy days, a core group of about a dozen still show up.
“It still surprises me when the same kids show up once a week no matter what the weather is,” Hayhurst said.
“I like the walking school bus because it's a really fun way just to kick off the morning and to walk to school with your friends,” said James Camden Hayes, a fourth grader who has been joining the walking school bus since he was in kindergarten.
Hayes is known for recruiting more friends to join each week.
“I just talk to them and convince them to come,” Hayes said. “I say the walking school bus is really fun and you should really try it out. And I really would like to hang out with you while walking to school.”
Wearing neon yellow safety vests, the children walk amidst adults, stopping at each intersection to watch for cars. They learn about the importance of staying on the sidewalk, away from curbs and people’s lawns, and how to come prepared for rainy days.
“I just want to walk slow so I can feel the peaceful breeze in my face,” said second grader Mauricio Morafiallos on a recent Thursday morning.
The potential to walk more
Mutrie wishes more families who live in close proximity to school would walk or bike, but many don’t.
According to a 2016 Beaverton School District student travel survey, on average 30 percent of all Beaverton students are driven to school. At some schools, that figure climbs to about 60 percent, even though 97 percent of students live within walking or biking distance of their schools, or are eligible for school bus service.
“If all students who could walk, bike or take the bus to school did, there would be approximately 12,000 fewer cars on the road,” Mutrie said, “which would make the school community safer, healthier and more pleasant for everyone.”
“I’m not sure why those kids are driven to school, but if it's because parents don't want kids to be walking alone, then this [walking school bus] provides an avenue for parents,” Heaver said. “They can just drop off their kids, and then their kids can walk with not only with adults, but with kids from their class and other kids from the school.”
Heaver has friends in a different neighborhood who rotate leading walking school buses. She envisions many of them popping up all over the district, which would be great way to engage families with one another.
“Of course there's the physical benefit of the kids getting some exercise and fresh air before they attend school, and just to get them moving,” she said.
Heaver hopes the walking school bus can serve as an example to other neighborhoods in the greater Portland area of how simple it can be to get a group together to walk to school.
Different schools, different needs
Having complete sidewalks along the route also makes the walking school bus fun and easy for kids.
But some children live in communities that don’t have sidewalks, or have many unsafe crossings that make walking hard.
In Troutdale, about 25 miles east of Beaverton, school officials say their students have to cross busy streets on a daily basis, and some without sidewalks.
So the Safe Routes to School program at Troutdale Elementary School looks different than the one at Sexton Mountain in Beaverton.
“Trying to get kids to and from school safely is something that we spend a lot of time and energy on as a school system,” said Lara Smith, a curriculum and instruction coordinator at the Reynolds School District.
Smith said a student was hit and killed by a car last spring. That prompted the Reynolds School District to direct two of its teachers to create a special curriculum focused on creating a safe route to walk or bike to school.
“We were able to take that tragedy and build something that would inspire all teachers and all students to really ensure that they are safe all the time,” Smith said.
The unit is comprehensive, from learning how to set an alarm to wake up for school to walking out the door safely, according to fourth grade teacher Christina Grieve, one of the Troutdale Elementary School teachers who designed the curriculum.
“We talk about those things,” Grieve said. “How am I supposed to wait at the bus stop? How am I supposed to cross the street safely? What if there’s not a crosswalk? What am I supposed to do? We talk about: how do I leave school safely?”
At the beginning of the school year, students wrote stories about how they get to and from school. They included map and a pledge on what they would do to stay safe.
“These are really important things that students need to know, because they may not talk about that at home,” Grieve said.
Grieve said teachers read a selection of books, such as “Be Aware: My Tips for Personal Safety,” and sing songs focused on safety. Those songs include “Bus Safety Sound Off” that Grieve led her class to chant one recent morning.
“We just know what we’ve been told,” Grieve sang and her class followed, “Bus safety is for the young and old. Stand or sit away from the road, and wait until you’re told to load. I see. The driver sees. I see the driver. The driver sees me.”
In 2015, voters in the Reynolds district, which includes Troutdale, Fairview, Wood Village and parts of East Portland and Gresham, approved a $125 million bond to replace elementary schools and renovate and expand the high school.
“Our schools in the next couple of years are going to be undergoing a lot of construction with the bond passing,” Smith said. The construction may add to the challenge of walking through neighborhoods, “so we wanted to design something really responsive to that.”
The unit also prepares students to respond to peer pressure off campus, which worries school officials.
“[We have] a lot of issues at the bus stop, where kids have to make choices about who they are standing by,” Smith said. “Sometimes there's limited or no adult supervision at the bus stops… That's a real big hot spot for us, as well, where kids have to negotiate those situations by themselves and get to school in a calm space.”
So teachers and students have conversations about making the right choices while they wait for the bus, such as making sure they’re standing safely away from the curb and not pushing each other around.
“We empower the kids to know the content, and not necessarily rely on a lot of adult resources in this case,” Smith said. “So that is why this is working really well for us.”
Dedicated educators, passionate parents and eager students have worked together to make great strides toward safety in both Beaverton and Troutdale, and in communities around greater Portland.
It’s one example of the many faces of Safe Routes to School. In the next story in this series, we’ll take a look at how changes in the street are another key part of making the journey to school healthier, safer and better for kids.
Take the next step
Want to help kids in your community (or family) walk, bike and take transit more?
Visit walkbikeroll.org for helpful info about Safe Routes to School in your community, links to organizations that can help you start your own activities, and tips for walking and biking in greater Portland.
Check out the Safe Routes to School National Partnership's local chapter.
Read the report: