Hit the streets
Natomas parents group wants kids to walk to school
Prizes like small toys, T-shirts and class parties, exercise and time with friends. It’s what parent organizers use to motivate students at Bannon Creek Elementary School in Natomas to join the “Walking School Bus” that forms every Wednesday to complete the short march from neighborhood houses to the classrooms. The group, Traffic Tamers, hopes they thought of everything in their effort to promote walking as an alternative mode of transportation, something that shouldn’t really need a motivational push.
“The irony to me is that what we’re doing isn’t all that radical,” said Terry Preston, one of the founding parents of Traffic Tamers. “We’re trying to get people to do what we parents did naturally a generation ago.”
The high cost of gasoline, pollution and childhood obesity: These are the problems that the Traffic Tamers of Bannon Creek and other participating schools in the Natomas Unified School District hope to address.
They hope to increase the number of students who walk or bike to school as oppose to being driven by their parents. The parents of Traffic Tamers have joined a nationwide movement of schools attempting to make walking fun and safe. Currently, among three participating schools in Natomas, about one-fourth of students walk at least once a week, according to the Natomas Unified School District.
The group’s strategy is to create students that are so excited to walk to school that parents have no other option but to give in, just to quiet the nagging. And while kids might be excited by raffle prizes and hanging out with their walking friends, adults have the chance to meet neighbors and fellow parents.
“What we’re doing is building social capital,” Preston commented.
Teachers and parents from Traffic Tamers have noted distinct shifts in behavior in children who walk to school: Kids who walk or bike have exhibited more alertness and focus in class than children who are driven.
This push isn’t limited to Bannon Creek, though. In fact, one of the co-founders, Ted Link-Oberstar, began his work at Jefferson Elementary in Natomas, modeled after a program he came across in Marin County in 2002. He then carried it over to Bannon Creek when his daughter changed schools. There, he pooled his efforts with Preston, and the two have been leading Traffic Tamers for four years now. Due to the program’s success, the Federal Safe Routes to School Program has funded a Safe Routes program manager to work out of the district office; this coordinator will help other schools establish programs of their own.
In October, Natomas received a $1 million grant to help commence its proposed $2 million infrastructure project that will reconstruct eight intersections adjacent to the three schools. The improved intersections will include curb extensions, high-visibility crosswalks and one raised intersection.
Preston said the next challenge is getting kids and parents to utilize these upgrades. It is difficult to convince parents to break out of the old habit of driving to school and then continuing straight on to work. Another obstacle the grassroots movement faces is getting enough new parent volunteers each year so that Traffic Tamers lives on past its founders, whose children will be graduating soon.
Perhaps it’s nostalgia, perhaps it’s the development of new friendships, but whatever the reason, Preston maintains that when parents get involved in walking, they enjoy the experience just as much as their students.
“I’m glad my dad started this program. It encourages exercise,” said Link-Oberstar’s daughter Claire, a fourth-grader.
Claire has been walking to school since kindergarten and has not grown tired of it. While walking, she struck up a friendship with a student outside of not only her class, but her grade, an acquaintance she might not have come across had it not been for the Walking School Bus.