Every morning, dozens of elementary school students in Springfield, Massachusetts, wait on street corners for the “Walking School Bus” to arrive. Led by teachers and parents, the organized walk provides a safe and healthy way for children to get to school. Not only are students more likely to turn up for school, the morning exercise means they often settle down faster when they get there.

The Walking School Bus is one of several strategies that the midsized, western Massachusetts city has used to reduce chronic absence. Springfield Public Schools has a district-wide attendance initiative that has cut the proportion of chronically absent kindergartners significantly. The district has a structured protocol for reaching parents, each principal has an attendance performance goal and the city’s weakest schools are working with community agencies to address chronic absence.

The Walking School Bus has appeal beyond its impact on chronic absenteeism. It enhances health and child safety, as well. In 1960, half of all students nationally walked to school. Now barely 15 percent do.

Stranger danger, traffic safety, and time are the three main concerns for parents when it comes to making decisions about whether to let their children walk to school. Some parents worry about violence in their neighborhoods and the lack of proper traffic safety amenities for pedestrians. Parents also find driving to school more convenient as they are rushing to work. Many new school even have built in “drop off and pick up” areas.

But driving to school has its own perils, namely putting more cars on the road in school zones, contributing to childhood obesity from sedentary behavior and increasing air pollution. With these factors in mind, the national Safe Routes to School has promoted walking and biking programs across the country.

In Springfield, the school district joined the local Live Well Springfield coalition working to increase healthy eating and physical activity in the community. Coalition members including Springfield Housing Authority, the Talk/Read/Succeed program, Baystate Health Safe Kids program and Brightwood Health Center, the state Department of Public Health, Mass in Motion team, Partners for a Healthier Community, the YMCA of Greater Springfield and other groups invited the state chapter of Safe Routes to School to join them and form a Walking School Bus Taskforce.

Springfield found that more than 90 percent of students who lived within a mile radius of school were being driven to school. The Walking School Bus started slowly, beginning with six to 10 children walking every morning with a small but consistent group of teachers. By the end of the first year, 40 to 50 students were participating. In the 2011-12 school year, Springfield had three separate walking routes led by staff, Monday through Friday, with about 134 students consistently walking to school each day.

Early results show that students participating have a better attendance rate (approximately 2 percent) than their peers, according to the Brightwood Health Center nurse, who leads the Brightwood School effort. One student who was tardy or absent 22 days in the 2010-11 school has not been late or absent once since joining the program.

“You need to start slow, and each school needs to tweak the Walking School Bus for their students and families,” said Laura Hurley, project specialist for Partners for a Healthier Community in Springfield. “We discovered that presenting the research regarding walking to school and its positive effect on academic achievement, is effective with teachers getting involved. Children who can burn off energy on the way to school are more apt to settle down and be ready to learn.”

Springfield’s Walking School Bus Taskforce is working to increase the number of schools involved and develop safe routes maps, which show the location of traffic lights, crossing guards, sidewalks, playgrounds and schools. They are also planning to pilot a “Safe Square” campaign in Mason Square, highlighting the last sidewalk square before the street as a way to warn children about the busy intersection and prompt them to use the crossing signal.

If you’re interested in starting your own Walking School Bus, see Safe Routes to School’s toolkit. Safe Routes recommends two options: One is a simple approach, starting with a few families who test out a route and take turns walking children to school. The second is a more structured approach, involving more children and more routes. In either instance, the group recommends a few key steps:

  1. Determine the amount of support and interest
  2. Identify the best routes
  3. Identify enough adults to supervise the walkers, whether they’re parents, volunteers or teachers.
  4. Prepare and communicate. This important stage includes training volunteers, creating a time schedule and reaching out to families.
  5. Start walking and launch your initiative with a “Walk to School Day” to promote involvement.