A 'walking school bus' in Southwest Baltimore keeps kids safe, boosts neighborhood

Moments after dismissal, hundreds of students pour outside from the back doors of Frederick Elementary School.

Some hop into waiting cars while others begin the short walk to row homes on nearby blocks. But a small group of children hangs back, forming a single-file line against a chain-link fence, and wait to be led home by adults in what’s called a walking school bus, which doesn’t actually involve a bus.

The idea is simple. Under adult supervision, a group of kids walk to and from school together through Southwest Baltimore’s Mill Hill and Carrollton Ridge neighborhoods while playing games, singing songs and learning tips on crossing the street safely.

It's a more common practice in suburban communities, though it’s gaining popularity in Baltimore. School officials say the walking school bus helps neighborhood children facing a longer walk to school after the closure of the underutilized Samuel F. B. Morse Elementary school nearby.

Frederick and Samuel F. B. Morse merged this year as part of the 21st Century Schools program, a $1 billion initiative to rebuild some of the city’s aging school buildings. Frederick was one of the first schools to benefit from the massive investment. It reopened this year with $31 million worth of renovations.

Capitalizing on the new schools, the city is targeting areas immediately around those schools for improvements such as better sidewalks and tree planting.

Still the closure of Samuel F. B. Morse upset parents like Dannie Stubbs. The neighborhood school was a two-minute walk from his Carrollton Ridge home, and he could take his daughter My’asia there each morning with plenty of time for him to get to work.

Frederick is about half-a-mile further, along streets Stubbs doesn’t want his six-year-old daughter on alone, for fear of criminal activity. The city school system only provides yellow bus service to elementary schoolers who live more than a mile from their neighborhood school.

But Stubbs and My’asia, his first-grade daughter, have embraced the walking school bus.

“She gets to school happy and she gets home happy,” Stubbs said.

Now she travels to school alongside about 10 schoolmates. As they snake along sidewalks, the kids play I-Spy, Simon Says and sing songs.

Three adult staff members walk with the group, keeping an eye out for cars or other potential dangers. The staff doesn’t let the students embark on their walk until everyone’s shoes are tied — they want to eliminate the risk of tripping on loose laces.

Typically, such initiatives are volunteer-based, with a rotating cast of neighborhood parents acting as chaperones. In the Frederick Elementary model, though, the role is a paid, part-time job for local residents, adding to the program’s professionalism and providing a small economic boost to the community.

The Baltimore Curriculum Project, which runs Frederick Elementary as a public charter school, picks up the tab.

“The top concern of parents is how kids would travel safely to and from school,” said Larry Schugam, the Curriculum Project’s exective vice president. “We learned about walking school buses and identified that as one of the solutions.”

The walking school bus is beneficial for a variety of reasons, said Marieannette Otero of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership. Not only can adult supervisors ensure student safety, but it encourages physical activity, too, she said.

“The walking school bus lends itself well to getting kids moving and providing more safety,” Otero said. “I hope we’re going to start seeing it being replicated throughout the city.”

Sabrina Wiggins, Frederick Elementary’s community liaison, said her school’s walking bus is the first she’s heard of that pays its bus captains a stipend. Each staff member must pass a background check, and get trained on basic pedestrian safety skills. Their job doesn’t end when they drop off students in the morning — they join the children in the cafeteria for breakfast, and escort some of them to their first classes.

“We’re not just here to walk them back and forth,” said Michael Shumam, 33. “We’re here as mentors as well.”

Thelma Terrell, 74, is retired and has lived near Frederick for almost her entire life. The $10.50 per hour she earns helps her pay bills. She also loves being around the children.

“You get attached to them,” said Terrell, whom the kids refer to as Mama T. “If a child had a bad night, you can see if they’re somewhat disturbed in the morning. You can give them inspiration to know it’s going to be a good day.”

Sometimes they talk about difficult matters, too. As the students walk home, they’ll sometimes step over broken liquor bottles, cigarette butts or drug paraphernalia. The children occasionally have to swerve around piles of dumped trash. And they often pass in front of boarded-up vacant homes.

“The kids know more than we think they do,” Terrell said. “They’ve very observant. We try to make them aware of what they need to avoid.”

Recently, though, the city has taken steps to improve the route Frederick students take to school. Along the “bus” route, children walk along recently repaired sidewalks, cross roads on freshly painted crosswalks and step under newly planted trees.

The city has committed more than $1 million to making such improvements within a half-mile radius of Frederick through its INSPIRE Program. The idea is that stronger schools lead to stronger neighborhoods, and vice versa.

The money has gone toward demolition efforts, street resurfacing and tree planting, among other improvements. City officials also have worked to clear out common dumping spaces.

The upgrades are focused mainly on areas the students see and use when they walk to school.

There are plans to make similar improvements in each of the neighborhoods immediately surrounding a 21st Century School. Between 23 and 28 school buildings are expected to be rebuilt under the program in coming years.

“Each of these buildings represents tens of millions of dollars in investments,” said INSPIRE planner Jennifer Leonard. “We recognized there was a real opportunity to leverage that to make other changes in the neighborhood, as well.”

The INSPIRE program is developing improvement plans for the neighborhoods surrounding eight other 21st Century schools. The idea is to focus on the quarter-mile area around each of the modernized buildings. The limited geographic area will allow for specific, implementable changes to be made quickly and with concentrated impact, officials say.

“If we don’t make an effort around this effort at this time, we’ve really missed an opportunity,” Leonard said.

In many of their preliminary plans for neighborhoods, the planning department recommends communities implement a walking school bus to ensure safe travel to and from schools.

“It’s definitely picking up,” said Wiggins, the community liaison from Frederick Elementary. “I think we’re going to start seeing a lot of people using the walking school bus soon.”

trichman@baltsun.com

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