IOWA CITY — Third- through fifth-grade students and parents at 13 schools throughout Iowa, including James Van Allen and Ernest Horn elementary schools in the Iowa City Community School District, are reporting their transit behaviors this fall for the Iowans-Walking Assessment Logistics Kit (I-WALK) program.
The Iowa Department of Public Health and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach facilitate the initiative, though county public health chapters handle much of the administration, with funding from the Iowa Department of Transportation and the Centers for Disease Control. The funding allows schools to participate in the project at little to no cost.
“The purpose of I-WALK is really assessment,” said Catherine Lillehoj, a research analyst with the state department of public health. “It is not, per se, an intervention. The whole purpose is to assess the walkability and bikeability of schools.”
Through a parent and student response survey, a Teacher Tally and the use of Web Mapping Technology and Global Positioning Systems, I-WALK volunteers and public health staff collect and analyze information about how students travel to and from school and the routes they take. Schools and communities can then use the information to increase safety, and improve and repair sidewalks and streets so they are more conducive to walking or biking, potentially through getting grants.
The express goal of I-WALK is not to discourage students from riding the bus or parents from dropping their children off at school, though the program website does note that walking or biking does create “additional opportunities to get the recommended 30-60 minutes of physical activity each day.”
“It’s just kind of highlighting options,” said I-WALK Project Coordinator Suzy Wilson. “(I-WALK is) drawing attention to schools to make sure they do have a plan for children to get to school safely, whether it’s adding crossing guards or some schools are doing walking school buses … It’s just different things that can be put in place to help kids get to school safely.”
Jim Murray, principal at Tilford Elementary School in Vinton, said he appreciated receiving the information from the school’s spring 2011 involvement in I-WALK but ultimately no changes have been implemented nor are any planned.
“I know with the school, we can control our environment, our grounds and our property,” Murray said. “The difficult part is you still have to get that community connection. We don’t control the sidewalks in town or the intersections.”
According to the National Center for Safe Routes to School, 48 percent of kindergarten through eighth-grade students usually walked or rode a bicycle to or from school in 1969. Forty years later, that number fell to 13 percent as concerns about childhood obesity rose.
While administrators did not provide hard data about student travel trends, many provided anecdotal information about seeing declines in those numbers in their own buildings or districts.
“I don’t have statistics but generally what we’ve been seeing over the years, families, they’re busy,” said Susie Poulton, director of Health and Student Services for the Iowa City district. “So it’s just a matter of putting kids in the car, dropping them off and then parents go to work.”
Pat James, principal at Van Allen in North Liberty, said the school has enough students biking to the building that staff have discussed getting more bike rack space. While she does not have plans for what the next steps are with the I-WALK data, James sees the physical and scholastic value in more students relying less on cars and buses if they can.
“Kids who are healthier are more ready to learn and more engaged in the learning process,” she said. “Kids visit, they have social relationships with peers walking to school together and riding their bikes together.”
The department of transportation’s Safe Routes to School program, on the other hand, is about encouraging more students to walk and bike to their schools and offers grants to mitigate the very problems I-WALK assessments identify, such as broken curbs, insufficient sidewalks and unsafe intersections.
October was International Walk to School Month and the state public health department kicked it off with Walk to School Day on Oct. 3. According to Principal Kristin Cannon, the event had healthy participation from Horn students.
When it comes to transportation, the Iowa City elementary school is in a unique position as it has absorbed students displaced by the closing of Roosevelt Elementary School in late May.
“We’re building a new community,” Cannon said. “I think the walking program would help continue growing that community and building those relationships.”
The redistricting has resulted in busing changes and increased focus on how students can reach and leave that building safely each day, Poulton said. Busy intersections and more cars, as a result of fewer students walkers and cyclists, are also factors.
To that end, Cannon said she is hopeful that I-WALK data will help the school sustain a walking school bus program, in which students travel with one or two adults, increasing physical activity while decreasing concerns about student well being.
“The safety of the walking school bus might get more parents to allow their kids to walk to school,” she said.