Let’s get started! Tips and Resources for Beginning a School Walk/Bike Program
Let’s talk about walk and bike to school programs at your school. Maybe you’ve been reading about programs at other schools. Maybe you’ve even been to a Walk.Bike.Schools! meeting. And this is the year you’ve decided to go for it, you’ve vowed to start a walk and bike program at your kid’s school.
You’ve set a goal to get something going in 2013/2014. Now all you have to do is start.
Wait, starting a walk and bike to school program sounds daunting. Maybe you’re new to the school and don’t know many people. How do you start? What’s the first step? How do you find essential allies? How do you communicate with the school community?
In addition to the many online (downloadable) resources on this website to help you get started, Walk.Bike.Schools! group is also a wonderful community. Many members of this group are seasoned walk and bike to school organizers. And many are just like you, learning how to start and may have the same questions and obstacles that you do. If you don’t find the information you need on the website, join the group and ask for specific information!
Note: To participate in the conversation, join the Walk.Bike.Schools! email list on Google Groups (note: Google has updated our group their “new” groups format. You won’t be be shown the “join group!” link unless you are logged into a google account. If you have trouble logging in, email firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get you added. )
Below are some key elements to starting a program. These are some things I wish I knew before we started the bike and walk to school program at Bryant elementary. Read on if you want to learn more:
- Bike or Walk or Both? — Start with walking, it’s easier! The barriers to entry for walking to school are pretty low.
- Partners — Because you don’t want to do this on your own, it’s more fun with friends.
- Funding — Because it takes money to host events. And you don’t want to break your family’s budget hosting bike and walk to school events with your own money!
- Communication — Because learning the best way to reach families in your school community and to get people to show up is the key to your success.
Bike or Walk or Both?
Maybe you’re into biking. And you really want to start a bike to school program at your school. But you look around and don’t see many parents and kids arriving at school on bikes. Maybe the geography of your school limits families’ ability to commit to biking. Maybe your school is on or close to several arterials. Maybe your school is at the top of a very large hill.
What to do? Should you start with biking anyway? Or start with walking?
Lessons Learned at Bryant elementary
At Bryant we started with biking because the original organizers were into biking and we wanted to promote biking to school. Biking is exciting, it’s a lifestyle. What’s so fun about walking? No one ever talks about a walking lifestyle.
Because of this decision to focus on biking, it took several years for the program to take off. Why? Maybe biking is too big of a step for many families, biking to school takes more equipment and more of a commitment from both kids and parents. For a kid to bike to school, they need a parent who is willing to bike with them (either walking along with their kid as they bike or biking themselves). And not many parents are willing and/or able to make that commitment every single day. Add a time constraint (getting to school on time), and biking is out of the question for many.
Yes, biking events at Bryant have been successful. Biking events and rides are fun. But they are a one-time thing. From bike to school month kickoffs to bike to school day to rides to many other events, people showed up for events. But in terms of daily bike riders, the number and percentages of year-round riders remains relatively low at Bryant in relation to school population.
But the number and percentages of walkers is significant!
Because most everyone is a walker at least sometimes. And most people have rain coats and umbrellas. For those reasons, walking is much more accessible to most. Bryant is a neighborhood school, families live close to school and the number of year-round walkers is already pretty high.
Once we started to promote walking in earnest at Bryant, the number of participants grew quickly. And In hindsight, the program probably would have taken off sooner if we’d focused on walking from the start.
So what should you do? It’s up to you. Get a feel for your community. And pick a focus (or decide to promote both) and just go for it! If you choose to focus on biking and the program isn’t immediately successful, don’t get discouraged! It may take a little time for families to join in the fun.
Parents, Administration, PTSA and teachers are your key partners. Read on to find out how to leverage these key partnerships.
Parents: Parents make things happen. Starting a bike and walk to school program requires time and effort from parent volunteers. Your best bet for success is to find another parent or group of parents and work with them. If you’re lucky enough to attend a school that has a group of uber-parent volunteers, you’re already ahead. If not, don’t despair, you really just need one other parent to help you get a program off the ground.
How do you find the right people? Look around. Look for the walkers. Look for the bikers. And introduce yourself. Maybe you see a family on your walking route to school every day. Talk to them, maybe they want to partner with you? I’ve found it’s easier to find parents to volunteer for specific events or tasks, so start there. And keep asking the same people to help. Eventually they won’t be able to say no and you’ll have a natural partner.
It’s a good idea to keep growing your team. Look for kindergarten and first grade parents and get them on board early. Make sure your team includes parents of kids in most grades. Once parents of older kids leave the school, you won’t have to scramble for new volunteers.
Another method for finding parent volunteers is to reach out through all school communication. Each school usually has a preferred method for all-school communication. Paper newsletter? Online newsletter? Group email? Find out the best way to get a message to the entire school and use it to ask for volunteers.
School Administration: As soon as you can, like tomorrow, get in touch with the principal at your school and ask for a meeting. The meeting doesn’t have to take long. Principals are busy, and they have many school responsibilities so don’t take too much of their time. But they will usually give you at least 10-15 minutes to meet with you. Take that time to introduce yourself and fill him/her in on your walking/biking goals for the school community. Make sure the principal understands how important walking and biking to school are to the school community, neighborhood and mostly to learning. If you need the principal’s help, let him/her know what you need. Ask him/her to participate in events or to simply come out on the playground and greet walkers and bikers in the morning.
PTSA: Another important group/ally is the PTSA, key parents who are connected with the school community, administration and the staff. Ask for time on a meeting agenda to talk about walk and bike to school programs. Your message can be very simple: your goal is to improve community by promoting the benefits of walking and biking.
Teachers: Find out if any teachers walk or bike to school. Talk to them. Ask them for help in promoting walking and biking. Their involvement can be as simple as talking about walking and biking to school in class. And to send positive messages about walking and biking.
Talk to PE teachers; ask if you can hang posters in the gym. Ask if they’ll promote walking and biking to school as part of the PE curriculum. Or ask if they’ll promote a specific events and talk about the event in their classes.
PTSA is also a good source for funding. PTSA sets their budget once a year. Ask your school’s PTSA treasurer for dates and deadlines relating to the PTSA budget. Find out if they have extra funds for promoting biking and walking to school. Are groups able to request PTSA funds for a specific event? Maybe you just want to hold a walk to school day on the playground and you want funds for treats. Maybe you want enough money to fund programming for an entire year. Find out the ins and outs of PTSA funding and just ask!
If your school does not have a well-funded PTSA (and even if it does), you can apply for Safe Routes to School Grants for additional funding. Find more information on available grants on the SDOT page and in Walk.Bike.Schools resource list.
Messages: What messages do you want to communicate to the school community? Do you want to emphasize health benefits of walking, or the benefits to learning, or reducing neighborhood traffic, or the benefits to the neighborhood and surrounding community? This article published by Atlantic Cities has useful information and data about the link between active transportation and learning.
Pick one or two positive messages and emphasize them in your communication.
But not too preachy: I’ve found people are more likely to listen if you keep messages simple and positive. Walking is fun, you get to spend time with friends etc. I’d stay away from stats and messages that are too preachy. People don’t like to be told what to do. If parents don’t want to change their habits, they’ll just tune you out!
Paper? Email? Posters? How do you choose to communicate? Again, depends on the culture of your school. Is your school anti-paper? Then don’t print a bunch of fliers and hand them out on the playground. Does your school communicate through the web or email? Find out the preferred way to get your message out to the most parents. Sometimes you just have to try multiple methods before you figure out what works best for your school.
Have I missed anything? if so, please include any additional information and ideas in the comments.
I hope you’ve found this information useful. If you have specific questions, feel free to ask!
– Anne (Bryant Elementary and Eckstein Middle school parent)