Dozens of kids within walking distance of their Providence elementary school are now part of a pilot program aimed at getting them to school and home safely - and on time. The Walking School Bus program pairs professionals and volunteers with the mission of cutting down on chronic absenteeism and tardiness among students who, ironically, live closer to school than those who take a bus. Jim Hummel tags along.
For more information or to volunteer for The Walking School Bus click here.
The end of another school day at the Mary Fogarty Elementary School in South Providence - and hundreds of kids scatter in different directions. Some take a bus home, while others meet their parents in the playground behind the school.
Then there are two dozen plus children who are part of a new initiative called The Walking School Bus, aimed at making sure kids who have to walk - but are late to school or chronically absent - get there on time.
It's a pairing of adult professionals and volunteers that help kids walk to and from school.
Hourahan: ``The majority of the kids that were having problems with absenteeism lived within a mile of the school.''
Stephen Hourahan is the chief advancement officer for Family Service of Rhode Island - a social service agency that launched the walking school bus program last year. It's part of a children's initiative project aimed at helping a specific neighborhood with a variety of needs, from healthcare to education. In this case Fogarty Elementary - in the heart of South Providence - is the pilot for the program.
There are similar programs in other parts of the country, but the a focus is on obesity and exercise. This one is unique in that it focuses directly on absenteeism.
Hourahan: ``Some kids live at home without parents. Parents are on a third shift, they're sleeping when the kid gets up to go to school. They just weren't getting them to school.''
Ally Trenteseaux helps coordinate the walking bus. She and others who work for Family Service combine with community volunteers to get nearly three dozen children on three different routes to and from school every day. Half a dozen children from the Bailey Elementary School a few blocks away have their own route as well.
``Blue line! Blue line!''
Hummel: ``What's the reaction you find when they go with you?''
Trenteseaxu: ``They tend to never want to leave it. We've had a lot of kids from the local colleges come.''
Hourahan: ``We're talking about simple solutions again. We're not talking about something that's rocket science, it's very simple to get out and meet the kids, make sure they get to school on time, then go off and do your job. and if you can do it in the afternoon, come back at help us.''
Hummel: ``What's the pitch for others who may consider doing this?''
Mello: ``The pitch would be: You come and see what I've experienced, little children coming out of their homes, in this weather alone, you're going to want to go back and help out. You have to arrive, to achieve. If you don't arrive at school, there's no way they're going to achieve, get any decent grades if they're absent. It's impossible.''
In Providence, Jim Hummel for The Rhode Island Spotlight.
The routes all have names: the blue line, the green line and the purple line. The kids know who to go with by the color of the coordinator's backpack.
Trenteseaux: ``Attendance has improved with all of the kids. They went from chronically absent to almost near or perfect attendance.''
We tagged along last month in all kinds of weather. From a raw foggy afternoon in early December to bitterly cold mornings that take your breath away. The walking bus is there every day - and so are the kids, gathering in the morning to go to school, then again in the afternoon to go home.
Scott Mello, a captain in the Providence Fire Department volunteers two times a week. Mello oversaw the latest fire training academy and rotated in groups of recruits throughout this fall to walk with the kids.
Mello: ``Walked with the children in the morning. And that was an eye opener.''
Hummel: ``In what way?''
Mello: ``To see kids just at that grade level, 2nd 3rd 4th 5th grade just walking down city streets to meet us on the central location alone. In some cases without gloves or hats.''
The conversations are animated and the kids appreciate having company on what for some is a very long walk.
The School Department does not provide buses for elementary-aged children who live within a mile of their schools, which means some kids have to cross major intersections when they walk, including Broad Street.
Mello: ``And I was watching the children who were about 5 to 10 feet in front of me; they're excited, they're walking home, and my thought process kept coming back to me, what if we weren't here? These children would be crossing Prairie Avenue and Broad Street alone.''
Trenteseaxu: ``They kind of just latch onto you and it's great - they play shy at first when a new walker comes. But they'll latch right onto you they'll hold your hand they'll tell you stories. You learn so much about them in just the 20-25 minute walk.''
Hummel: ``It looks like sometimes you don't have enough hands for everybody on the route, right?''
Trenteseaux: ``No, definitely not. They each grab one, then they don't want to hold each other's hand they want to hold the leader's hand. At one point this year I had two holding a hand, one holding an elbow and then one holding a backpack strap.''
Hourahan: ``Some of these kids come out to wait for the walking school bus - in zero degree weather. They don't have coats on, they don't have hats on, they don't have shoes that don't have holes in them, so we've provided all of that.''
Hummel: ``Do you think of that as an adult walking these kids and think where they would be if you weren't there with them?''
Trenteseaxu: ``Of course, yeah I mean I'm scared to cross the intersections by myself, never mind with six kids and you only have two hands. It's scary and I've always wondered what happens; to the kids we aren't able to reach out to because we do have a wait list.''
Mello: ``The age dilemma to them is very interesting. To them 21 years old is very old. So they think all the adults are 21. So they look at you, are you 21?''
Hummel: ``Does that make you feel good?''
Mello: ``Oh, makes you feel great. They think all of us walking are all 21.''
Family Service wants to expand the program but needs volunteer walkers to supplement the professional staff.
Trenteseaux: ``Young-Woods (Elementary) needs it, Lima (Elementary) needs it. Kizirian (Elementary) wants it. The program coordination is very simple and something that we can handle easily it's just we need more manpower.''
Most of the volunteers are hooked.