Wednesday’s rain didn’t stop the kids who walked to Hillside Elementary School.
They gladly trooped through the puddles in raincoats, wearing backpacks and carrying mini umbrellas. Their happy chatter and colorful garb brightened the gray autumn morning.
The students are part of the Walking School Bus program, an initiative that began five years ago at Hillside Elementary School.
Each Wednesday in October and May, volunteer adult “bus drivers” in reflective vests walk specified routes, pick up students along the way and escort them to school. The volunteers have been screened and trained.
“We’re really trying to promote healthy lifestyles,” said Hillside Elementary’s principal, Shireen Fasciglione. “We are the only Niskayuna school that’s a neighborhood school where we allow walkers on a large scale, because we are nestled right in the neighborhood.”
The school, she said, has a regular walking population of between 20 and 30 children, but when the Walking School Bus revs up, that number surges to between 50 and 100.
The Walking School Bus began in conjunction with International Walk to School Day, which is held each October. But Hillside Elementary has taken the initiative a step further and now offers supervised walks to school each Wednesday not only in October but in May as well.
PTO volunteer Glynnis Hunt has headed the program for three years. Her third-grader, Ethan, participates. On days when there is no Walking School Bus, he rides his bike to school.
“One of the real successes of the program is that a lot of the kids, this gets them started to walk, and we’ve actually had kids who have stopped walking with the Walking School Bus so that they can walk on their own. That’s really our goal, to get them to do that on their own, and they do. They walk together in partners, and it’s been a real successful program,” she said.
Renae Semione of Niskayuna braved Wednesday’s rain for a 20-minute walk to school with her second-grader, Jenna, who ordinarily rides the bus. The two walk to school together every Wednesday during the Walking School Bus program.
“She likes to spend some time with Mom in the morning and I just started working part-time this year, but I’m able to fit it in before I go to work,” Renae Semione said.
Jenna said she likes to walk to school with her mom. The best thing about Wednesday’s walk, she said, was seeing the Halloween decorations.
“There were like these pumpkin heads, and they were wearing clothes and boots on the porch, and like spiders and fake webs, and it was really cool,” the 7-year-old said.
This October, about 50 walkers regularly participated in the program, Hunt estimated. Usually that number increases in the spring, she added.
Job Rijssenbeek of Niskayuna walked to school Wednesday with his kindergarten student, Lucas, and two neighbors who were walking with their children.
“We pass our school bus like three or four times during the walk,” Rijssenbeek said.
When Lucas takes the bus, it picks him up at 7:15 a.m. and he’s one of the first ones on. When he and his dad walk to school, the pace is a bit more leisurely.
“We meet [the neighbors] at 7:30 and we’re here at the same time that the bus gets here, so we get an extra 15 minutes,” Job said.
While they walk, the adults teach the kids about traffic safety. Rijssenbeek hopes once Lucas gets a little older, he’ll be able to walk to school on his own.
“There’s no big streets for us to cross, so I feel pretty good that if the kids get some idea of street safety, then they’ll be OK for walking,” said Rijssenbeek.
The school’s Walking School Bus program has attracted attention from outside the district. “We’ve actually had other schools ask us to sort of mentor them if they’re interested in doing it,” Hunt noted.
Hillside plans to continue the program next year, Hunt said.
Parents and students are pleased.
Mary Schmidt of Niskayuna has been involved in the program since it began. She walks with her three children, who are in fourth grade, second grade and kindergarten.
“It’s a really lovely program,” she said. “You feel so good when you get here because you’ve walked and you’ve talked and it’s very enjoyable.”