Walk to School Day, West Point MS
West Point, Mississippi knows a thing or two about planning Walk to School Days. The city was one of the first to receive a grant through Safe Routes to Schools funding awarded through the Mississippi Department of Transportation in 2007. Since that time, the City has partnered with the West point school district to hold an annual Walk to School day every year in October.
Melanie Busby is a grantwriter for the City of West Point and formerly worked for the West Point School District, she is also a parent and the primary organizer behind West Point’s Safe Routes to Schools Walking and Biking program. Bike Walk Mississippi asked her to shares her experience with planning a Walk to School event and asked what suggestions and helpful hints you could give to those thinking about starting a program at their local school.
What are the steps you have taken over the years to plan a successful Walk to School Day event in West Point?
Melanie Busby (MB):
Step 1: In my experience, the first thing an organizer should do is to contact the school principals to see if they are willing to participate. Buy-in from the Principals is KEY to a successful event. We asked Principals to actively participate on the day of the event.
Step 2: After getting buy-in from the school Principal or Principals, deciding on a meeting place and meeting time. In West Point, many of the schools are close together with four schools located within four blocks of each other - so organizers picked a central park downtown to meet, located that was two blocks for the younger children and four blocks from the Junior High. Melanie also suggests contacting local police officers asking them to block off traffic during the walk and provide escorts for younger children.
Step 3: We registered our event with International Walk/Bike to School Day at www.walkbiketoschool.org which has helped up obtain prizes and other helpful resources. Planning for the event was done by Melanie Busby along with staff in the Mayor’s office and the School District’s Parent Liaison.
Step 4: Next, I hired a graphic designer to create a colorful flyer to promote the event - you don’t have to hire someone, just make sure the flyer you use is eye-catching and includes all the right information. We sent a poster home with each of the students.
Step 5: We worked to get volunteers, law enforcement and elected officials to partner with us to help us make the event a success. School Principals joined us on the walk as did many teachers, parents and additional volunteers. We required parents to come to walk with their children who were in Kindergarten or Pre-K, one year we also had additional support from a local sorority who gave out water and walked with the children and West Point’s Mayor even joined the fun, supported our efforts and even walked with the children!
Step 6: As I was preparing for our event, I also made plans for publicity. I recommend doing what you can to get media coverage during and after the event if possible. On several occasions, our Walk to School Day event was featured in the newspaper.
TIPS FOR PLANNING AN EVENT:
Give some thought to finding a good centrally located meet-up spot and a time that works for all the students. This meeting place can be a public park or a nearby parking lot where parents can bring children to walk together to school. When deciding what time to hold your event, think about the needs of the children. Remember that in many schools, some children rely on eating breakfast at school, so make sure you plan your event early enough for children to meet up, walk to school and arrive in time for breakfast. Another suggestion is to ask the Principals, what time they would suggest, ask them to help lead the walk and make sure you have enough time to do the walk, complete the sign up sheets and make any announcements.
One the day of the event, make sure you have multiple sign-in sheets. If you want to record who walked, it can be overwhelming to get hundreds of children signing up at once. We typically have 20-30 sign-up sheets just in case, it makes it much easier the day of the collect the information.
Try to create some incentives for participation. Everyone loved wearing stickers on their shirts and classroom competitions work well - organizers could offer a pizza or popcorn party for the classroom with the most participants. One year, we used “Fitness Finders” as an incentive for children to walk to school. We purchased the starter kit which offered program documents, punch-cards and basic training. This allowed us to have a system for tracking how much the children walked. Everyone quickly wanted to earn a charm - event walking extra laps around the playground at recess, it also allowed us to reward the children for distance walking instead of equally awarded points for those who walked from a shorter distance. We’ve also used badges, stickers and classroom competitions as incentives. There is a lot of room to get creative with ideas!
One year we encouraged bicycling to school as well - however, in our experience it was tricky because some parents that allowed their children to ride bikes TO school didn’t have a way to get them home (especially if their children rode the bus). Instead, something that we have done that I would recommend is planning a bike rodeo obstacle course. We held one on a Saturday and partnered with two West Point bicycle patrol police officers who taught a bike safety class - anyone who completed the course also received a free bike helmet. With funds from our Safe Routes to Schools grant, we were also able to purchase bike racks for the schools who didn’t have them, allowing for bike parking for children close enough to ride to and from school on their bikes.
Each year, on average, over 600 children participate in West Point’s annual Walk to School Day.