School District Leaders
While school districts are not assigned direct responsibility for local transportation planning, School Board Trustees want students to arrive to school on-time, safely and ready to learn. High fuel costs and cuts in budgets for busing have many districts and families scrambling for alternatives. Students living in districts with a strong public transportation system are not dependent on school buses. Districts which favor smaller schools situated within or adjacent to residential neighborhoods have an advantage, especially when there are bicycle and pedestrian-friendly routes to school. However, many California schools do not currently have these conditions.
Despite the structural exclusion of schools from the governance of most existing transportation planning agencies, school district leadership has an important place in the discussion and the creation of solutions.
Internally, school boards can adopt guiding documents that promote safe and active transportation. Guiding documents establish goals, expectations and internal systems.
The California Active Communities a unit within the California Department of Public Health states, “School siting, the determination of where a school will be placed geographically in relation to the community it is intended to serve, is one of the most important decisions school boards make.” School proximity to students matters. Students with shorter walking and bicycling times to school are more likely to walk or bicycle. School siting can include co-location near city or county parks, trails and libraries, as well as considering a site’s active transportation potential when deciding which school to close if enrollments decline.
School Closing Criteria
When a district has declining enrollment, it faces tough decisions regarding which schools to close. School siting criteria, as explained above, should be factored into the analysis.
School Wellness Policies
In the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004, the U.S. Congress established a new requirement that all school districts with a federally-funded school meals program develop and implement wellness policies that address nutrition and physical activity. By updating a wellness policy to include the trip to and from school, school wellness policies can include provisions to address active transportation.
Joint-use agreements are between two or more entities — usually a school and a city or private organization — to share indoor and outdoor spaces like gymnasiums, athletic fields and playgrounds. Joint-Use Agreements provide an opportunity to reduce a person’s need for additional transportation and increase physical activity.
Curriculum requirements and supplemental programs can promote active transportation and teach walking and bicycling safety skills within physical education, science and math curriculum, and in before and after-school programs.
Districts also have a role in directing school site leaders to support and address barriers to active transportation. Every school is required to have both a school site plan and a school safety plans. Site plans may have a physical health goal which can include the promotion of active transportation. This can include identification of barriers and possible solutions for more active transportation such as: secure bicycle parking, safer drop off and pick up traffic patterns, traffic calming, remote drop-off locations and a walking school bus program.
A district-wide active transportation initiative can set goals for the district, provide incentives for school-level improvements, and foster community awareness of active transportation benefits and programs. More detail is available in the School District Initiatives post.
As for programmatic solutions, districts can educate and encourage students and staff to make safe and physically active choices in a myriad of ways. This can include internal workforce wellness policies that provide incentives for school staff to make active transportation choices, to using the schools communication systems (auto dial to homes, public announcement systems, newsletters, etc.) to support student, staff or parent-led active transportation programs.
Programs can emerge from many sources and often attract unanticipated resources. Savvy leadership encourages staff, parent and student initiative.
In Glendale, a tragic accident in which a student was killed while in a crosswalk prompted a parent to engage the city and parent teacher association to address pedestrian safety. Her efforts have led to a district-wide pedestrian safety program which includes supervised walking school buses, a city-wide bicycle plan and 31 schools participating in International Walk to School Day. Learn more (PDF).
San Marino Unified School District Board of Trustees approved a “scan and notify” data system to track activities for a two-week challenge. A total of 3,245 human-powered trips to or from school were logged. These covered 2,837 miles, burned 113,463 calories and averted 2,483 pounds of carbon dioxide from eliminated car trips. Learn more (PDF).
To influence land use and transportation policy beyond the school yard, school board trustees must collaborate with local city and county government.
Collaboration with Local Government
Most school boards have “Two by twos” or other mechanisms for regular coordination between trustees and council members and county supervisors. These conversations can lead to improved on-the-ground safety with coordinated efforts to provide crossing guards, reduced speed limits by schools, and increase bicycle safety enforcement.
Many city and county officials began their political careers on school boards. Now they have a seat at the table in regional planning. Meet with them. Only by building collaborative priorities will the decisions made on how to address traffic safety, infrastructure financing, and public transportation linkages address the needs of school districts.
Cities Counties and Schools Partnership and California School Board Association (PDF) provide resources on how school board trustees can cultivate productive collaborations. These relationships will be critical to address traffic congestion and pedestrian safety around schools.
Delano Unified School District welcomed the City of Delano’s contractor, Youth Education Sports, Inc (YES) into its elementary and middle schools to provide pedestrian and bicycle safety education. Next they participated in YES’s “walking ambassador” program which trained middle school students to supervise elementary walk-to school days. At Nueva Vista School, where the walking ambassadors serve, the number of students walking or bicycling to school has increased 43 percent. Learn more (PDF).
Many communities have collaborative task forces which promote active communities. These groups incorporate local school districts, cities and counties, as well as interest groups such as parents, youth clubs, older adults, bicyclists, business owners, and health advocates. Together, they can identify priorities and attract volunteers and other resources.
The Humboldt Partnership for Active Living has initiated numerous activities. They sought and received free assistance from the California Safe Routes to School Technical Assistance Resource Center to lead a planning workshop and walk audit for Grant Elementary, a low-income school. This prompted the PTA to secure a community grant and launch an education and encouragement program which lead to a 30 percent increase in the number of children residing within a half mile radius who routinely walk to school. Learn more (PDF).