Heatherwood Elementary School in Boulder, Colo., is a small neighborhood school with 375 students, 90 percent of whom live within 2 miles of the school. Despite this close proximity and being located in the suburbs of a city known for its active lifestyle, only 10 percent of the school’s students were walking and only 1.4 percent were cycling to school in 2008. A parent survey revealed that few students were walking or cycling to school because a rural highway bisected the school’s attendance area.
A group of concerned parents, supported by the principal, formed a Safe Routes to School (SRTS) committee. They focused on four primary goals:
* To increase the number and frequency of students who regularly walk and bike to school.
* To address and allay parent concerns about safety.
* To equip students to be safer, more skilled walkers and cyclists.
* To establish a school community that supports Safe Routes to School.
Colorado Department of Transportation funding, paired with tremendous support for the program from parents and faculty, brought about great change at the school. In just three years, Heatherwood Elementary School’s SRTS efforts and activities resulted in an increase from 12 percent to more than 43 percent of the school’s students regularly walking and bicycling to school.
Infrastructure Improvements and Education Lead to Cultural Change
Heatherwood received $235,000 for infrastructure improvements and $9,000 for education and encouragement activities from Colorado Department of Transportation. The infrastructure funds were used to construct a crosswalk, pedestrian island and sidewalk and to install school zone flashers with a new 20-mph speed limit. These infrastructure improvements contributed to a culture change at the school. Parents began to regularly use the new crosswalk with young children and allow older children to cross by themselves. Additionally, more parents volunteered to staff the crosswalks in front of the school.
Education was at the core of the program. “We’ve found it extremely important to educate our students to be skilled walkers and cyclists,” said Amy Thompson, Heatherwood’sSRTS coordinator.Each year, the school hosts a bike rodeo to reinforce both bike handling skills and traffic safety. Heatherwood also piloted the district’s “BLAST” program for fifth graders – a unit in physical education classes that gives older students hands-on experience learning traffic rules for bicyclists.
The school participates in International Walk to School Day each year. The school’s art teacher created a bicycle sculpture that hangs in the school’s entryway and serves as a reminder of the school’s love of cycling to staff, families and visitors. “Our families have truly embraced the SRTS program,” Thompson said. “We are also seeing more and more staff members setting a great example by bicycling to school themselves.”
SRTS Program Benefits From Community Partners
Heatherwood coordinated encouragement efforts to boost enthusiasm for the program. The school partnered with community members such as the local sheriff and fire departments, Boulder Valley School District, Boulder County Transportation Department and non-profits such as Community Food Share and Assisted Cycling Tours, as well as the local media and small businesses.
The school hosted a Walk & Roll Week twice a year, using a Golden Sneaker Award to reward classroom participation through a friendly competition. Students filled out Walk & Roll tracking forms to document their active trips to school, and they received small prizes for participation. For one Walk & Roll Week, the theme was “Pedal for a Cause,” and children were encouraged to bring a canned food item in their backpacks to donate to Community Food Share. Students collected 260 pounds of food, and parent volunteers rode five miles to take the donated food to Community Food Share. Students also rode their bikes to regular volunteer sessions at the food bank.
Local Cub Scouts organized a group ride and bicycle maintenance instruction session for their dens. A local yogurt shop selected Heatherwood’s SRTS program as the beneficiary of its “Pennies for Thought” program in September and donated 10 cents for every yogurt sold. Each grade level at the school selected a day that month to ride bikes to the shop after school. The local fire department and sheriff’s department provide extra safety patrols around the school, and the sheriff’s department recognized Thompson with a Citizen’s Commendation Award. The Boulder County Transportation Department added more projects to its schedule to make the greater neighborhood more walkable and bikeable for everyone.
In the spring of 2011, Heatherwood sought to make its SRTS program even more inclusive. The school has an Intensive Learning Center (ILC) focused on children with autism and has a relatively large population of students with autism. Heatherwood won a mini-grant from the National Center for Safe Routes to School to pilot a bicycling program for children with autism. For this grant, Heatherwood partnered with Assisted Cycling Tours to create the first SRTS program for children with special needs in the state of Colorado. Bob Matter, founder of Assisted Cycling Tours and father of an autistic son, loaned his knowledge and his fleet of specially outfitted tandems to help Heatherwood’s students in the ILC participate in the district-wide Bike to School Day on April 22. After several meetings and practice sessions, students and their families met in a local park for the group ride on the morning of Bike to School Day. Local celebrity athlete, Brandon Dwight, who is a national Cyclocross champion and owner of Boulder Cycle Sports, joined the ride, as did many teachers, staff members, the principal and other students from school.
SRTS Program Recognized as Exemplary
Heatherwood increased the percentage of students regularly walking and bicycling from 12 percent to more than 43 percent in the first three years of the program. In October 2010, the school placed first in the nation in the Clorox Greenworks Walk to School Challenge, during which 234 children and 200 parents logged more than 5,200 miles of biking and walking in one month. In 2011, 90 percent of the school population participated in Walk & Roll Week at least once.
“In three short years, Heatherwood Elementary was transformed from a typical, suburban, car-centric school to a role model and leader in making ‘alternative’ transportation not just the norm but enthusiastically embraced by our community,” Thompson said. “We have more than tripled the number of kids using human-powered transportation to school, and there are far fewer cars (and their subsequent pollution) arriving at our doorstep each day. Walking and cycling is now accepted as a fun, safe and healthy mode of transportation, and it extends beyond just the trips to and from school.
“My advice is to be patient with infrastructure improvements; they take a lot of time to implement,” Thompson said. “Focus on the encouragements activities to get started. Biking and walking to school is fun and community building. Once you get everyone's enthusiasm level up, they can help you take the education and infrastructure improvements even further and give great feedback and ideas.”
Heatherwood Elementary School SRTS Coordinator