Factoring walkability into school boundary decisions will benefit students, communities, and the bottom line.
The Seattle School District is in the process of changing elementary and middle school boundaries to respond to capacity needs and demographic projections. To succeed in the important task of drawing school boundaries for the greatest benefit of students, Feet First joins a growing number of communities in insisting an additional factor be taken into consideration: walkability.
“If the District successfully incorporates walkability into its boundary calculations,” explains Jen Cole, Safe Routes to School Program Director with Feet First, “we will see benefits in student health, learning, and economic savings for years to come.”
The way a child gets to school has an impact on learning. Studies show that children concentrate better and have less learning anxiety when they get to school on their own two feet. With physical education and recess time being boxed out by desk learning, the time to and from school remains one of the few open opportunities for daily moderate activity.
Furthermore, yellow-bus service – undeniably a critical component of a safe school travel system – is costly. The state allocation for bus service requires annual subsidies from the district’s general fund. “With one yellow bus route costing roughly the equivalent of a new classroom teacher, there’s great sense in maximizing safe walk options,” says Lisa Quinn, Executive Director of Feet First.
The option to walk is gaining popularity among Seattle families. At Beacon Hill International School (BHIS), a full 30 percent of students walk to school, according to a count conducted by the school last spring – far higher than the national average of 13 percent. Now families are bemoaning growth boundary proposals that would reduce area walk boundaries and increase the number of students requiring bus service. “Changing the boundaries would mean [my child] would be in class with kids she can’t visit on foot or by bike,” Beacon Hill resident Melissa Jonas wrote in a recent letter to Mayor McGinn. “Please help us keep in class with our neighbors.”
BHIS is a model of what the Seattle School Board envisioned when it unanimously voted in January 2012 to include the “Safe Routes to School / Biking and Walking Student Wellness Plan” in the transportation service standards. In a move that coordinates well with the District’s neighborhood schools policy, this provision promises continued district support for crossing guards and Walking School Buses.
In another example, Olympic Hills Elementary in the Lake City neighborhood, the proposed boundary change will eliminate 41 square blocks from the current walk zone, sending the children in this dense residential neighborhood across Lake City Way, presumably by yellow bus. Feet First knows this area well, as we have been working with families to organize a Walking School Bus that goes directly across the area that would be eliminated from the walk zone. From the farthest corner, it is a 20 minute walk to school, plus a little extra for the kids to race each other across the playground once they arrive. It is difficult to imagine that a school bus picking students up from this area would arrive at Cedar Park Elementary east of Lake City Way in such a short time or that children would be as energized once they get there.
Adding walkability into the Seattle School District’s boundary calculations will help to maximize the value of neighborhood schools, including the promotion of health, learning and community cohesion. It has the additional potential to help increase efficiency in the yellow school bus service, thereby saving money that could otherwise go toward education. For these reasons, Feet First urges the Seattle School District to make walkability a factor in deciding future school boundaries.