Pecan shells are the foundation of a new route where students can safely walk into Coatimundi Middle School in Arizona's Santa Cruz County. The shells were laid by volunteers to create a safe path for kids to get to school without being in traffic.
That's just one example of the creative energy behind the Safe Routes to Schools program in Rio Rico and Nogales, led by Sarah Prasek, senior program coordinator for University of Arizona Cooperative Extension in Santa Cruz County, part of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Coatimundi Middle School, a relatively new school, only had drive-up access. There was no safe approach for young bike riders and walkers. Prasek looked around and saw a solution.
"The site was perfect for creating a back door walking entrance," she said.
"We had no funding to do this project. It was super successful because so many people came on board to make it happen," she said. "This was a great collaborative project. A lot of different people in the community pulled together." That included the owner of the easement, the school district, county officials, a local pecan orchard and volunteers who cleared the path and spread the pecan shells.
The project worked so well that Prasek did it again – at the shared campus of Pena Blanca Elementary and Calabasas Middle School, also in Rio Rico.
"It was the same idea – to create a back door – but this time we had a donation of materials from a local gravel and rock company,” she said.
"We need to be creative with our time, resources and partnerships."
Expanding to Nine Campuses Over Four Years
Prasek oversees the Safe Routes to School programs on nine campuses in two school districts – Nogales Unified School District No. 1 and Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District No. 35. The program began with four schools in the fall of 2009.
The national Safe Routes to School program is funded by federal grants that come through the Arizona Department of Transportation. Its goal is to improve child health and wellbeing through physical activity, especially regular walking and biking to school.
Most Safe Routes programs are administered by individual schools or school districts. This cross-county, two-district partnership with UA Cooperative Extension is unique, Prasek said.
She works with the schools to participate in International Walk to School Day each October, to map out safe routes for walking and biking, and to sponsor other activities that encourage regular physical activity. Some neighborhoods form a "walking school bus" – routes where adults will walk and pick up kids all along the way. There's a "Feel Good Mileage Club" at one elementary school.
In addition, last spring four bike safety rodeos were held to teach road safety and bicycling skills, collaborating with police and sheriff offices, the border patrol and community volunteers. The Safe Routes to Schools program also provided traffic signs, cones, loaner bicycles and giveaway helmets.
An average of 700 students in Rio Rico and 500 students in Nogales took part in quarterly walk-to-school events last year, Prasek said. At Challenger Elementary School in Nogales, students participated in the International Walk to School Day.
"There was a fantastic turnout. The principal told me later that they saw parents who were driving, and their kids asked to get out of the car and join the walkers." Now the school organizes walk-to-school events four times a year.
At Lincoln Elementary School in Nogales, students and their parents walk a half-mile, then gather for a breakfast of yogurt, granola and fruit. One mother of three now walks to school with her kids every day.
"It helps us to get more active as a family," she said. One of her children added, "We're always walking to school now and it gives you energy."
Developing the Fit & Fun! Challenge
Decades ago the majority of students walked or biked to school. Today fewer than 10 percent do so, statistics suggest. Most are driven to school on buses and by parents. Some schools in Santa Cruz County are too far away for students to walk – or the streets are too steep and curvy. One is located next to the frontage road of Interstate 19.
"What works for one school does not necessarily work at another," Prasek said. "We adapt the components that make sense."
That's one reason Prasek and a physical education teacher developed the Fit & Fun Challenge now used by seven elementary schools to encourage students to get some physical activity most days. Students and other family members complete a challenge card of physical activity throughout the month. There's a traveling trophy that classes work hard to keep and prizes are awarded – colorful bracelets that the students like to collect. During the 2012-2013 school year nearly 3,000 students and 2,000 parents completed the Fit & Fun! Challenge, Prasek said.