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Bill would prod students to walk, not ride, to school

Christina Parker (back left) and Joanne Hooker joined students walking to school in Newton.
Christina Parker (back left) and Joanne Hooker joined students walking to school in Newton. (Globe Staff Photo / Bill Polo)

Every morning there's school, rain or shine, Christina Parker shepherds a group of children through the woods in Newton.

"The kids love it," said Parker, 50. "It's obviously a tremendous way to start the day. It's healthy. It just makes a lot more sense to me to be walking instead of driving."

Parker's flock came together informally. But such groups may soon get a boost from a bill pending in the Legislature that would distribute federal funds to communities to promote walking and biking to school.

The Safe Routes to Schools Bill is designed to help communities establish safety education programs; install new crosswalks, bike lanes, and signs; construct and replace sidewalks and traffic-calming bumps; and build multi use trails connecting to schools.

In recent testimony before a Beacon Hill committee, the bill's lead sponsor, state Representative Kay Khan of Newton, touted the benefits of walking to school.

"The students will have the immediate health benefit of an increase in regular exercise, and many will also develop lifelong interests in walking and cycling," the Democrat told the Legislature's Joint Committee on Transportation. "In addition, the reduction in automobile use for driving children to school will reduce traffic congestion in cities and towns. A reduction in traffic will likely lead to a cleaner and more healthy environment, better safety on the roads, and improved driving conditions for those who do drive."

The proposal arrives at a time when the federal government is warning that the nation is in the midst of an epidemic of childhood obesity.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, surveys have found that from the 1970s to the present, the ranks of children ages 2 to 5 classified as "overweight" swelled from 5 percent to 13.9 percent. For children 6 to 11, the percentage rose from 6.5 percent to 18.8 percent ; for children 12 to 19, it rose from 5 percent to 17.4 percent.

The agency has developed an Internet-based program, called KidsWalk-to-School, to encourage support among parents, schools, parent-teacher organizations, police, politicians, public works officials, civic associations, and businesses.

The agency's website gives tips on health benefits, resources, and how to organize the community to promote walking and biking among schoolchildren.

The state now has no programs encouraging students to walk or bike to school, although officials are pleased to see some individuals taking the initiative, said Heidi Perlman, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Education.

"We completely support anything that gives kids more exercise, anything that allows them to have more time outside," she said.

State Senator Pamela Resor, a Democrat who represents Marlborough and is also a sponsor of the Safe Routes bill, said that its passage could unlock as much as $5 million in federal highway safety funds for Massachusetts.

Even without federal help, some school area principals, public health and athletic directors, and parents have already nudged students to get on the hoof.

Suzanne Wilcox, principal at Needham's John Eliot Elementary School, said about 150 to 200 of her students now walk to school, out of about 400 in kindergarten through fifth grade.

"We all know the more active children are, it enhances their ability to learn," she said.

Teachers at the school have organized a lunch-time walking club, and serve as role models for the children, she said.

School officials understand how parents can feel nervous about sending their kids off alone, particularly in high-traffic areas.

Next fall, Wilcox said, they are planning to recruit "neighborhood captains" from the fifth grade to take the trek with the younger children "so the parents won't be so anxious about letting their kids walk."

A walk-to-school program at Newton's Mason-Rice Elementary School developed out of a tragedy four years ago, when a student, fourth-grader Jordan Weiss, died of diabetes.

Officials at the school, which serves kindergarten through fifth grade, responded by initiating the Jordan Weiss Walk for Health, according to principal Mark Springer. Every October, students walk a 1.6-mile course around Crystal Lake to promote awareness about the disease.

This spring, parents spearheaded what was called "Walk to School Wednesdays," but Springer said he was not sure how many of his 380 students participate.

City officials have helped by meeting with principals to try to get sidewalks on walk-to-school routes plowed early on snowy mornings, he said.

It's difficult for parents with harried schedules to participate in the outings before and after school, Springer pointed out.

Christina Parker said she recognizes that it's a "luxury" for her, as a stay-at-home mom, to have been able to walk to school with her four children, ranging in age from 8 to 14.

Parker, who is still walking her two youngest to Zervas Elementary School, said that, among other things, it's an opportunity for them to learn more about nature.

"I am an outdoors person," she said. "I'm able to show the kids what's growing on our way. I know the plants. I know the poison ivy at every stage, edible wild plants, nonedible. I know the trees. That's really fun to be able to share. It's a nice connection to have them look around and see there are things going on."

Parker said she also believes in curbing driving to help the environment.

"I'm really an anomaly, I know," she said. "I rarely even use a clothes dryer."

Parker is often joined by several neighborhood families, including Joanne Hooker and her three children, who are ages 5, 8, and 10.

Hooker said their odyssey began when she had trouble rousing her middle child, Rebecca, in time for school.

Attempting to inspire her daughter into action, she told Rebecca that whenever she missed the bus, she would have to walk. Rebecca continued to sleep in, and the family took to the streets.

It turned out that the children loved it -- Rebecca most of all.

"When we walked, we found out it was fun," she said.

The second-grader added that the most enjoyable parts of the walk included veering off to hide in a "teepee" fashioned from sticks, scrambling down a hill, and sprinting the final stretch to school along the sidewalk with her friends, trying to outrace the cars on Beethoven Street.

Her mother said she would be delighted if the bill is passed and the state and individual districts facilitate schoolchildren walking and biking to school.

"I think there's not a lot of encouragement for this to happen," said Joanne Hooker. "A little bit will go a long way."

Information from the federal Centers for Disease Control's KidsWalk-to-School program can be found at www. cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/kidswalk.

Connie Paige can be reached at cpaige@globe.com.

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