Wisconsin school’s commitment to bicycling creates cultural change

The city of Omro is a small, rural community (pop. 3,300) in northeast Wisconsin.  Omro Middle School is located on the far north side of the city, with farmland less than a mile to its north, east and west.  While 42 percent of its students live within two miles of the school, many of these students must cross one or more major barriers – including state highways and the Fox River – to walk and bike there.  As a result, the vast majority of students are eligible to be bused. 

In response to these challenges, Omro Middle School initiated a Safe Routes to School (SRTS) Program with the help of funding from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (awarded in 2008 and 2010).  The program has made tremendous progress improving the physical and cultural environment for walking and biking to, from and at school.

From the outset, the mission of the Omro SRTS program has been to build and maintain a well-rounded bicycling culture.  This goal was championed by the school’s physical education teacher, Joe Horvath, and its principal, Paul Williams, who viewed Safe Routes to School as a way to enhance students’ physical fitness and provide more opportunities for exercise.

“It’s the answer to how to get kids doing more active things outside of the school day,” Horvath said.

Laying the Foundation: Walking and Bicycling to School

In 2010, the school held its first Bike to School Day, which kicked off a regular bike train program to help students bike to school safely. In the same year, the school district initiated a monthly Walking Wednesdays program, which encouraged students to walk to school via walking school buses chaperoned by teacher volunteers. A mini-grant from the National Center for Safe Routes to School paid for signage to mark walking and bicycling routes to school for the bike train and walking school bus programs.

Promoting an Active Lifestyle: Encouraging a Bicycle-Focused School Culture

In addition to these regular activities supporting active commutes to school, Omro Middle School instituted several programs that promote bicycling at school. The school established a bike fleet of 35 bicycles, acquired through donations or from the Omro police department, that are available for students to use during physical education classes, lunch, special events and school trips.

The bike fleet is maintained by the school’s “Young Mechanics,” a group of about 10 middle school and high school students who work in the school’s Bike Shoppe after school, during noon recess or during study hall. Mechanics can work on their own bicycles, those in the Bike Fleet or those brought in by the general public. Young Mechanics earn “Bike Bucks” that can be put toward the purchase of bike parts or a bike restored by the Young Mechanics, making bicycle ownership more accessible to some students. There are other positive consequences. Principal Williams notes that some students who don’t excel in a traditional classroom setting thrive in the hands-on environment of the Bike Shoppe.

The Bike Shoppe and Young Mechanics program  are augmented by a curriculum that supports bicycling. Each year, Omro’s eighth graders spend two weeks learning about bicycles and bike safety in their physical education classes, then participate in a bicycle scavenger-hunt field trip. Students begin the day with a bicycle safety quiz, then bike in chaperoned teams of 10 to their first stop, where a police officer judges their bicycle safety skills. Throughout the day, the students bicycle to stations 2-3 miles apart, where they solve a problem or riddle, complete a team-building activity or answer school subject matter questions (such as math problems or an English quiz). Adult “station masters” also provide bike safety tips, as well as water and healthy snacks. By the end, students bike about 30 miles total, culminating in a picnic and a prize raffle.

Involving the Community: Cultural Change as a Result of Safe Routes to School

As of spring 2012, about one in six students at Omro Middle School regularly walks or bikes to school, and many more are involved in walking and bicycling activities while at school. The school has changed its culture to one focused on an active lifestyle.

“Omro Middle School stands out from other SRTS programs across the state because they have integrated bicycling and walking into their school culture,” said Melissa Kraemer Badtke of the East Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, which works with the school’s SRTS program.

Students learn bike safety and maintenance and possess the skills to properly ride a bicycle on city and town roads. Teacher volunteers chaperone walking school buses and bicycle trains to alleviate parental concerns of “stranger danger,” and set a good example for students by biking with them to school. Parents drop off their children at walking school bus stops instead of at the school, so that students can walk part of the way to school.

The community has shown great support of Safe Routes to School as well. They have donated bikes to Omro Middle School’s Bike Fleet and brought in their own bikes for repairs, and they have donated time to activities like the eighth grade field trip. Moving forward, community volunteers will help the school build a new, larger Bike Shoppe as well as a cyclocross course.

“Without this community support, it would be very difficult for them to accomplish everything that they have accomplished with their SRTS program,” Badtke said.



Melissa Kraemer Badtke