Q&A: Delivering a Gorilla-Sized Walk to School Day

For most readers of this e-newsletter, Walk to School Day will be a happy memory at this point.  Not so for Don Cross.  He’ll have some warm and fuzzies for sure, but with more still to come for another week or so.

Don is the School Safety Coordinator with the Street Transportation Department in Phoenix, Ariz.  The macro view of his job is coordinating pedestrian and vehicle traffic safety around the 520 schools in the Phoenix school system.  Put a microscope on Don at work and you’ll see that part of his job is being the Safe Routes To School Coordinator for Phoenix, and this time of year his job is all about Walk to School Day.  Don plans and pulls off the largest Walk to School Day in the country, with 30-40 events every year spread out over a six-week period.  An average of 5,000 students join in each year, a 25 percent participation rate, and the participating schools see about a 3-5% increase in students using active transportation regularly.  This year his first event was on September 23 and his last will be on November 2.

We’re thrilled that Don took the time to share his Walk to School Day organizing insights with us.

Q:  How and why did the Phoenix Walk to School Day grow to 40 events?

A:  I started my job in 2005. It was also my first year doing Walk to School Day Events. Phoenix had been doing Walk to School Day since 2000.  We did two events my first year, on International Walk to School Day.  I quickly realized we weren’t reaching out enough, we weren’t doing enough.  I thought we could do more and we could do it better.  In 2007 we ramped up to 16 events, two in each of our eight city council districts, all on International Walk to School Day.  Assessing those events, I still felt like we couldn’t reach enough schools, and I learned that we couldn’t involve all the dignitaries who would have liked to participate.

So we expanded the number of events and the time period, first to a month and now six weeks.  This allows more people to be involved at different schools and it frees up community resources.  For instance, if there are multiple events on one day, we may not be able to get all the police presence that we need and the council members who want to attend can’t get to all of them.  It also allows the city to focus on schools one at a time, to make it special for each school on its Walk to School Day.

Q:  In addition to the Walk to School events, you also do a pre-Walk Assembly at each school.  How does that work?

A:  Over the years I’ve created a 30-minute education and training event that we do in each school one or two weeks before the Walk to School event.  I tweak it every year, reviewing the material, adding new people to the presentation team.  This event is about safety—pedestrian and biking safety, personal safety, health.  I bring together a team of experts—police, fire, health and nutrition, and sometimes a special guest like Ronald McDonald or one of our professional sports teams’ mascots, like the Phoenix Suns’ Gorilla.  We use music and entertainment to get the safety messages across.

The kids don’t even realize they’re learning, but we hear them all singing “you should look left, right, left before you cross the street” during the Walk.  We’ll do two or three assemblies at each school, divided by grade, depending on the number of students in the school.  So every year we reach 20,000 students with our safety messages.  Each school also has a post-Walk Assembly.

Q:  How does one person coordinate such a huge undertaking?

A:  It starts with me then branches out.  I think of Walk to School as a “season.”  The season begins in July, when I start figuring out which schools will be involved.  I have five annual schools—they want to do it every year.  Some have tried and want to do it again, others might have taken a year off and want to come back.  I have a list of new schools I want to get involved, and then I have to make sure the entire city is represented fairly.  Then I send invitations to the schools—about 80 percent of the invitations are accepted.  When a school declines, I have a back-up list to draw from.

Once the schools have committed, I meet with each one of them individually to discuss the events and finalize the schedule. We have 28 school districts in Phoenix, and they have different vacation schedules.  Most of them have a fall vacation in October, so I have to schedule around those.  By the middle to end of August the schedule is set.

Then I set up meetings with our community action officers and their sergeants in each of the eight police precincts.  We go over the upcoming events in their precinct, I share maps of the routes, and we make any changes that are needed and make arrangements for the police presence needed for each event.  At that meeting we also coordinate the police officers’ involvement in the pre-Walk assemblies.

Next I put together agendas for the pre-Walk assemblies, the Walks, and the post-Walk assemblies.  So the planning is finished by the end of August, then in September we start doing pre-Walk Assemblies.  When the Walk to School events begin, I might be doing a Walk in the morning, pre-Walk assemblies at one school later in the morning and assemblies at yet another school in the afternoon.

Q: How are schools involved in the process beyond accepting your invitation?

A: School involvement is essential to a successful event.  It all starts with the principal.  A principal who is hands on and believes in the importance of walking to school helps make the best events.  They have to do a good job of selling the event to their staff, students and parents in order to be successful.

Since I handle the coordination of the events, the school's primary job is to advertise and participate.  The materials and processes I have created over the years make advertising and participating as easy as possible for schools.  I give each school advertising fliers that define the date, time, meeting place and route map for the event; an optional 15 second music jingle (written by me) to play over the school announcements; an option to pick through a choice of 25 different 1-2 minute "Safety" plays (written by me) to be performed by students on video announcements; coloring and essay contest fliers which also advertises the Walk; and the pre-Walk Assembly which further advertises the Walk.

Some schools provide students and staff to participate in the assemblies.  They will perform in a play, take part in the "Left, Right, Left" dance or perform some athletic feats all in the name of "Walk to School Day."  Some schools create grade level posters to show pride in their particular grade level to carry at their Walk.  Some teachers will create a theme for their grade and dress up to match the theme.  The best I ever saw was the 3rd grade teachers at Foothills Elementary who created a "Weird Science" theme and dressed the part!  The best example of schools participating in the theme of a walk is our annual Halloween Walk to School Day event.  When a school can add their own flair to a Walk it really makes a big difference.

Q:  Police involvement seems very important to your events.  What is the value of including law enforcement, and do you have any advice to others on how to get police involved in their events?

A:  Our events would not be what they are without police participation.  Police officers participate in the Pre-Walk Training Assemblies and provide much-needed traffic control at the Walks.  People large and small respect the police.  When police are at an assembly or providing traffic control at a Walk, they provide a different level of safety and security than the events can have without them.  The police have a calming effect on school staff, parents and students alike.  When police at the assemblies tell stories about collisions, abductions or other things related to children, we really get the students’ attention.

The assemblies also give police officers a chance to show their special talents to the students.  Some of them sing, some of them dance, and some do cartwheels.  I never know what I am going to get from them.  I often think of them as the wild cards when I’m putting an assembly agenda together.  They are an integral part of the Phoenix Walk to School Day process.

As far as advice for involving police...  Make it an annual process.  Do it the same way at the same time.  Police love a routine.  If you make a routine, they’ll be on board.  And really have a plan, have your ducks in a row.  They may have tweaks, but they respond better to a plan.  So have a plan and ask for feedback.  After a couple of years they’ll get to know you and it will be a lot easier.  Now the police I work with know me.  We’ve been working together long enough we’re on a first-name basis and they respond to me quickly.  Once you get there, it’s a lot easier working with them.

Q: What about follow-up and assessment once the events have ended?

A: The follow-up with the schools at the end of the walk events is minimal.  I check in with the principal or primary school liaison and bring them a CD of pictures from the event and reminisce.  The schools tend to follow-up more with me with a thank you e-mail, letter or a phone call.  I send out thank you letters to all of the dignitaries and community leaders who participate in the walks and assemblies.

Over the past few years I have been doing more with assessment, analysis and statistics at the end of the events.  Since 2010, I’ve created reports that summarize the events in that particular year.  In 2010, I created a combo Walk to School Day and Bike To School Day report that broadly defined my process regarding the creation of the events and offered stats and photos.  I presented this information at the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) Conference in Phoenix in spring of 2011.

For the 2011 Walk to School Day events I dug deeper and created a 50 page report that reviewed each individual event diary-style called "27 Days of Walk to School Day Events—The Phoenix Experience."  I presented the report at the ITE Western Regional Conference in Santa Barbara, Calif., in June of 2012.

My plan for the 2012 Walk to School Day is to create a photo journal report.  The reports have been internal documents up to now but I am considering providing this year's report to each of the schools for the first time.

Q:  What advice do you have for communities getting started with Walk to School Day, or that want to grow their events?

A:  Come up with a system, tweak it over the years, fine tune it.  Find schools with stable administrations, with administrators who have been in for a long time.  Get them on board and keep them on board.  Show schools your appreciation.  Show the benefits to the schools and the neighborhoods.  And talk about it whenever you can—promote Walk to School Day in all your contacts with schools and school districts.

Q:  What are some of your favorite highlights of past Walk to School events?

A:  There are three that come right to mind.

First, last year at Mountain View School, we had our first-ever Hike To School Day.  The school did it as a field trip, busing every kid from the school to the trailhead, then we hiked 2.8 miles through the mountains back to the school.  I was worried the students would hate it, wouldn’t want to do it.  But they loved it!  Kids were coming up to me after the hike asking if they could do it every week.

Second, every year we do a Halloween Walk.  The greatest ever was 2010 at P.T. Coe Elementary.  Everybody dressed up—teachers, the principal, the students—me included.  It was incredible seeing everyone in costumes walking to school!

Finally, last year we had a walk that started at an IHOP restaurant—we called it our “Occupy IHOP Walk.”  If you came early and ate, IHOP donated 10% to the school.  They even offered a healthy meal at a discounted price.  We had 604 walkers (out of 1,000 students at the school).  We took over the IHOP, took over the IHOP parking lot.  The police were out in full force.  It wasn’t Halloween, but everyone was dressed in costume anyway.  The Phoenix Suns’ Gorilla joined in.  Then everybody walked down a major street to the school.  You should have seen us!