MILWAUKEE — On an unseasonably warm February morning, 11 children — some quiet and sleepy-eyed, some chipper and chatty — followed Regina Stieber along Milwaukee sidewalks wet with melting snow.
Two days per week, Lincoln Avenue Elementary School's "walking bus" picks up students on a set route and makes sure they get to school safely.
Stieber, Lincoln's community school coordinator, along with special education teacher Sue Sauerberg and her 18-year-son, make the mile walk each Monday while two other Lincoln teachers lead the "bus," which is actually an supervised procession of walkers, on Fridays.
Lincoln is a Milwaukee Public Schools bilingual community school located on the city's south side, The Journal Times reported.
Stieber said the Lincoln bus has been successful in increasing school attendance for its 14 participants in kindergarten through fifth grade. Officials at Knapp Elementary School, the Racine Unified School District's first community school, are looking to increase student attendance by start a walking bus of their own but have struggled to find volunteers.
Community schools work to serve the wider neighborhood, not just students, which includes increased after-school programming and more parent involvement.
Dani Dekker, assistant principal at Knapp, told the RUSD School Board during a December meeting that Knapp had already identified students who would benefit from a walking school bus and worked with Carthage College students to map out routes. The school attempted to start a walking bus last year, but could not find enough volunteers to lead it. Knapp is continuing to work on a solution.
"It's been a challenge to find people to escort the kids," said Unified spokeswoman Stacy Tapp.
Tapp believes that one of the challenges in getting volunteers is Knapp's early start time, with classes beginning at 7:20 a.m. Lincoln's start time is similarly early, at 7:30 a.m. The school's volunteers generally start the walking route at about 6:40 a.m.
The students on the Lincoln route are those who live relatively close to the school but have poor attendance, or who do not have a family member who can walk with them to school.
"We have really good attendance for the walking school bus for those kids on Mondays and Fridays, so we are getting those kids to school those days," Stieber said. "And the kids love it."
The school bus leaders carry a cutout of a school bus, and chat with the students or play games along the way. When it's cold outside, sometimes Stieber asks the kids to do jumping jacks or wiggle their feet while they wait for others to come out of their houses.
"They're usually pretty chatty in the morning because they are excited to see us and to see each other," Stieber said.
Lincoln started its Friday morning walking bus in fall 2017 and added Mondays this school year.
The school community had previously identified safety as a No. 1 priority at Lincoln, especially when it comes to kids walking to school. The district learned about walking school buses at a conference through Safe Routes to School, an organization that provides districts with information and resources about walking school buses. Parents loved the idea, Stieber said.
"That's how we got volunteers," Stieber said. "Because it came from them knowing that we wanted our kids to get to school safe, and there was already concern about safety in the neighborhood and our little elementary kids were walking to school by themselves."
Jamie Racine, United Way of Racine County's community schools manager who works with RUSD on community school services, has reached out to Stieber for information on the Lincoln walking bus and tips about how to attract volunteers. Stieber said that parent buy-in would increase the odds of success, and added that parents could even do a more informal version of a walking bus.
"If they're already walking their kid to school, they could pick up another kid on the way," she said.
Both Lincoln Avenue and Knapp are considered high-poverty schools with large minority populations. According to the state Department of Public Instruction, 96 percent of Lincoln students and 85 percent of Knapp students are economically disadvantaged. About 50 percent of Knapp students are black, and 74 percent of Lincoln students are Hispanic.
Not all of Lincoln Avenue's students walk to school, but the majority of them do. Some of the kids who were recommended for the bus lived close but had poor attendance, while others just happen to reside along the route and being picked up helped their parents in the morning.
Last year, two mothers with children at Lincoln led the walking bus, along with the community school coordinator at the time, which had 28 participants. Both had to stop doing the bus this year, but Stieber said the school knew it needed to keep the program going.
"Since it was so successful and the kids loved it, and we saw improvement in their attendance, it was like a given that we were going to do it again this year," Stieber said.
Janeth Prado, mother of a kindergarten student at the school, was one of the mothers who volunteered last year.
"To help the school was a big motivation," Prado, who speaks Spanish, said through a translator.
Prado lives close to Lincoln and said she wanted to encourage students who also live nearby to get to school and to help her son make friends.
"It was a beautiful experience to wake up and to help other kids come to school," she said.
Stieber said that being a part of the bus not only helps with attendance, but in other aspects of a child's school experience.
"There has been changes in behavior in some of the kids who were feeling disconnected from the school, who were kind of detached," Stieber said. "After doing the walking school bus, they come to school more, so they see their friends more. They also get one-on-one adult attention in the morning. They have their own little social group and it's just a great way to start your day."
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