When Julie DeMauro first moved to Revere, she lived less than a mile from the A.C. Whelan Elementary School yet still drove her two children each day. But it didn’t take long for the morning chaos to get her thinking about ditching the car.
“Our school at the time was crazy in the morning with parents dropping off and the traffic backed up,’’ she said. “I had a first-grader, a preschooler and a 10-month old baby and I remember trying to get to the school and lug them out of the car. I said, ‘I’m walking.’ I found it less stressful. It was easier because I could drop off the two kids and then walk home with the baby.’’
In 1969, 48 percent of children ages 5 to 14 usually walked or rode bikes to school, while four decades later only 13 percent did, according to a national study. DeMauro is part of an effort to reverse that trend and get kids moving again.
In 2010, DeMauro helped Whelan Elementary to set up a walking school bus, in which adults lead a walk and “pick up’’ children along a route to school. Today she is the Safe Routes to School coordinator for the Revere schools.
“It’s about getting the parents out there to realize the sidewalks are in good condition, the traffic isn’t as dangerous as we all fear,” DeMauro said. “In time what we’ve noticed in Revere is we started to see a switch. We’re seeing more kids walking. They have confidence they can walk and get there without issues.’’
Through the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, Safe Routes to School partners with public elementary and middle schools to promote walking and cycling to school and educate students on the best routes to take and to safely navigate traffic.
Starting this year, the program is conducting a survey of schools that will be used to create best practices for crossing guards across the state. Currently, many schools do not have a comprehensive set of policies/best practices for crossing guards.
In addition to safety trainings, the program helps its 746 partner schools in 200 communities — from Salem to Arlington to Mansfield —
“A lot of time what prevents families from walking to school is that they think there is too much traffic or they have perceptions about what happens along the way,’’ DeMauro said. “If they join one of these clubs, they realize it’s pretty safe.
DeMauro said that elementary school students should always walk with an adult. As they get older, she said, they should walk with a friend or a group of students.
“We are adamant that they should be walking with somebody,’’ she said. “They should never be by themselves.’’
With Safe Routes to School, each partner school has a designed outreach coordinator who works with members of the community to customize programs.
In Salem, for example, the Carlton Innovation School holds a weekly trek to school called Walking Wednesday. Arlington has different programs throughout town. Mansfield worked with the state on a study for road and sidewalk improvements that officials hope will encourage more walking.
“Kids are more eager and willing to learn if they have a healthier lifestyle, so this helps promote that,’’ said Rebecca Cyr, the deputy program director for Safe Routes to School.
Cyr said in addition to getting kids moving safely, an active walking program can decrease absenteeism, reduce traffic congestion, improve air quality, and build community.
After 10 years, the program is now working with 51 percent of the state’s schools, in partnerships that vary from school to school and community to community.
“Our program is customized so we’re working in urban and rural communities to meet their individual needs,’’ she said.
At the Flaherty School in Braintree, a schoolwide walk is held twice a year, said Principal Stacey Soto. She said school buses pick up students and drop them off at a central location to meet up with the regular walkers. The entire school walks together from there, she said.
“It’s something the kids and staff all look forward to,’’ she said.
Soto said most students walk to school on a regular basis so officials make sure the kids are properly educated. She said the state trains several parents who then work with all the second graders.
They go over safety measures like looking both ways but also talk about what to do if they drop an item in the street or need to walk around a delivery truck. Last year, the school brought back former students to help train the younger ones.
In Mansfield, students at the Jordon-Jackson School have participated in annual walk-to-school events organized by the state, or weekly walks, said Teresa Murphy, the town’s assistant superintendent. But this year she hopes the walking becomes more regular.
The town worked with the state on an infrastructure study to identify ways to improve safety and then received a federal grant to conduct the work. Murphy said the $1.1 million project includes bike paths, new sidewalks and a reconfigured intersection outside the school.
“What started out as walking to school has morphed into quite an undertaking for our town,’’ she said.
Susanna Baird of Salem said her daughter, Annalise Thornett, a third-grader, loves participating in the weekly walks to Carlton and was motivated to get out the door earlier so she could join.
“She learned safe practices about how to cross the street, read the lights at a crosswalk and the like,’’ she said.
DeMauro said clubs organized by parent volunteers may peter out after those children move on from the school; the challenge is keep programs going.
“If you can get it so the staff takes ownership, it becomes part of the school culture and is replicated from year to year and is more successful,’’ she said.
Arlington has one of the longest-running Safe Routes to School programs in the state. In 2001, Arlington was selected to be one of two communities in the country to participate in a pilot program in two elementary schools and one middle school.
Today, the town has a Safe Routes to School committee that includes parents, school and town officials. The group gets together monthly to talk about safety issues, infrastructure improvements, and special events, said Officer Corey Rateau, the town’s traffic safety officer.
Rateau said there have been several construction projects over the past few years, which means many students have been traveling to different schools, outside of walking distance. But with most of those completed now, he thinks more students will be walking, and biking again.
“I think you’re slowing seeing an increase,’’ he said.
Walking tips from Safe Routes to School:
— Walk on the sidewalk.
— Look left, right, and left for traffic.
— Walk facing traffic, if there are no sidewalks.
— Cross at intersections.
— See and be seen.
— Make eye contact with drivers
— Wear reflective or light colored clothes in the morning and night.
— Wear comfortable shoes when walking.Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.