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Stepping up and out

Educators get innovative in encouraging youngsters to walk to school

F or four years, Marcus Aluia got a ride to school. This year, he's walking.

Marcus is now in kindergarten, and he has switched from being pushed by his mother in a stroller, accompanying his two sisters to Bishop Elementary School in Arlington, to strolling with them.

"On the way to school, he's fine," said his mother, Caroline Aluia. "On the way home from school, he's tired."

Still, she said, Marcus and his sisters, in third and fifth grades, get into the spirit of it because "it's actually fun."

The Aluias are among a determined group of families nationwide trying to change the country's car-bound culture, and they are receiving help from their schools.

Principals at several elementary schools scattered throughout the northwest suburbs and New Hampshire are prodding schoolchildren to walk to school instead of riding in the family vehicle. The initiative has double aims: to promote health and reduce childhood obesity, and to get gas-guzzling cars off the road. The push seems to be working at some schools - both urban and suburban.

Area children who participate will have plenty of company worldwide during October, International Walk to School Month, with a special day in many countries devoted to walking. Walk to School Day in Massachusetts and New Hampshire is on Wednesday.

Promoting the walks is the federal Safe Routes to School program, adopted by many states. At both the federal and state levels, Safe Routes to School provides a playbook for local schools, with suggestions for how, where, and when to walk, and offering safety training.

Caroline Aluia, who is the Safe Routes to School coordinator at Bishop Elementary, is planning events to kick off a year of walking activities. She hopes others will start to walk, like her family does, "when it's not pouring rain or frigid," she said.

She plans to encourage others to join by putting profiles of families who walk in the school newsletter, and designating each week with a reason to hoof it: health, the environment, and the sheer excitement of community building.

"As we get closer to the school, more kids start to come out in the street, and it becomes quite social," she said.

Arlington is not new to the movement. In 2000, a pilot program began at the Cyrus E. Dallin School, where children will observe International Walk to School Day this year, according to Wallis Raemer, the school principal. Raemer said having the official program helped spur interest among the school community.

"I think it's made a huge difference for creating a culture where families walk to school," Raemer said. "The kids love it."

Now, with support from the US Department of Transportation, the Massachusetts Executive Office of Transportation, through its MassRides program, has partnered with 65 schools in 36 communities, and the list is growing, said MassRides spokeswoman Jennifer Walsh Carroll. Among the communities are Arlington, Ayer, Lexington, Lowell, Medford, and Stoneham.

In communities that did not prove suitable for walking to and from home, officials devised creative substitutes.

In Ayer, parents were apprehensive about their children walking to school because not all roads have sidewalks, said Robert Ackerman, principal of Page Hilltop School. So last year, Ackerman had buses pick the children up as usual and drop them off at the school track. Twice a week in warm weather and once a week when it was cold, about half the school's population of about 500 children walked from half to 1 1/2 miles, while a sound system piped music out to them. The program resumes this year on Tuesday.

"We make it fun," Ackerman said. "The kids love it. They had a grand old time. It's been a huge success."

Two years ago, Sue Ellen Briggs said, she became a Safe Routes to School coordinator at the Bowman Elementary School in Lexington. Briggs, who had a child then at Bowman, said parent-teacher associations helped make each walking day a festive occasion, with balloons and music playing in the playground at the end of the route. The days each had a theme - safety, health, the environment - and parents were encouraged to talk to their children about it. Walkers were asked to pick up trash along the way.

"It wasn't just about walking to school," Briggs said. "It's about connecting people, building community, meeting your neighbors, and to have everyone comfortable with the idea of walking."

In Lowell, the danger of busy intersections prompted Sandra Dunning, principal at the Abraham Lincoln Elementary School, to find an alternative to walking to and from home. On Wednesdays in May, Dunning got 65 buses to drop children off 20 minutes early at a parking lot associated with the local Registry of Motor Vehicles office near the school.

Dunning said about 300 of 478 children in the school then walked a roundabout route to school of about a half-mile. Parents, teachers, and police cruisers made sure they were safe. For children with physical disabilities, officials set up a special walk in the school gymnasium.

"The first Wednesday, we had many children saying, 'Oh, my legs hurt,' " Dunning said. "By the last Wednesday, they said, 'Can we do it some more?' "

In Stoneham last year, Maureen Burke, principal at the Colonial Park Elementary School, said, they organized a fall day for walking from home, and then more on Wednesdays in May. Before the May program, an official from the state gave a presentation about safety for children and parents. Children were rewarded with plastic bracelets of a different color for each Wednesday they participated.

"The children were excited about getting the bracelets," Burke said. "I think it showed parents to some extent it wasn't just a nice thing to do, but it also involved getting children healthier."

Burke said she is planning to continue the program this year because it was such a success.

In New Hampshire, Nashua is one of 12 communities that have applied for funding to promote walking, after the state adopted the federal program last March, according to John Corrigan, Safe Routes to School state coordinator.

Several years earlier, however, some elementary schools in Nashua started programs on their own, according to Marquerite Studer, volunteer chairwoman of a nonprofit group called Liveable Walkable Communities.

Now, Nashua has a citywide task force to promote walking to school, Studer said. "We've gotten a lot of positive response," she said.

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

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Last October, 40 countries - from Argentina, Chile, and China to the Philippines and Switzerland - participated in walk-to-school day, according to the website iwalktoschool.org.

The US Department of Transportation, through the Safe Routes to School program, makes funds available for a variety of projects. Safe Routes to School programs can apply for funding for education, training, and infrastructure - including building safer street crossings, bikeways, and trails - to encourage walking and biking safely. Visit safety.fhwa.dot.gov/com_resources.htm and click on "Pedestrian Safety" and then "Safe Routes to School."

The Massachusetts Executive Office of Transportation, through its MassRides program, has partnered with 65 schools in 36 communities with Safe Routes to School programs. Among the communities are Arlington, Ayer, Lexington, Lowell, Medford, and Stoneham. Visit commute.com and click on "Safe Routes to School Program."

SOURCES: Safe Routes to School and International Walk to School.

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