The new bike rack in front of Brooklyn Center's Northport Elementary School has 20 slots, but only two to four bikes were parked there on a recent spring day.

That's actually an improvement over how it used to be, but a long way from what Principal Patrick Smith wants.

"Before, we didn't have anybody biking to school," he said. "It's a start. ... I'd like to see that bike rack full."

Northport and five other Robbinsdale district schools are participating in a program called "Safe Routes to School." Its goal is to get kids within walking distance of the school out of their parents' cars and school district buses, and on to their bikes and skateboards and feet.

"The purpose of it is to increase physical activity, and create safe and convenient ways for students to walk and bike to school," said Smith. Northport just launched its initiative April 29 and managed to snag about $3,000 in grant money to implement it.

That money has been used to put in the new bike rack on a sidewalk, closer than the old one to where neighborhood students would naturally funnel into and out of the school, and to buy such incentives for kids as water bottles, T-shirts, and various bike accessories. Smith said 30 to 40 kids, as well as some parents, attended the program kickoff.

Literature on the "Safe Routes to School" program was mailed to about 45 school families within about a half-mile of the school.

"We've had lots of comments from kids and staff wanting the T-shirts," Smith said.

"Safe Routes to School" is part of a federal program designed to get kids exercising more. In the Robbinsdale and Hopkins school districts, it's administered by the Hennepin County Human Services and Public Health Department, said Hennepin County community health specialist Christopher Pulley.

Once a school signs on to the program, a volunteer committee comprised of educators and parents monitors how to get more children to take part, as well as any concerns that might arise. For instance, people might worry about speeding motorists near the school, in which case committee members would connect with their local police department to get better speed limit enforcement.

Other Robbinsdale schools in the program are Lakeview Elementary, in Robbinsdale; Neill Elementary, in Crystal; Noble Elementary, in Golden Valley; Sonnesyn Elementary, in New Hope; and Plymouth Middle, in Plymouth.

School committees devise their own strategies to get more of their kids walking and biking. The Safe Routes committee at Neill Elementary worked with the city of Crystal to install signs and paint crosswalks near the school. At Sonnesyn, neon pylons were installed to highlight a crosswalk leading to the school, and solar-powered speed indicators were placed at a street near the school.

While Smith noted that Northport Elementary is still in the infant stages of its program, he has already noticed an impact.

"I know there are a few kids who would get a ride from a parent or ride the bus who are now walking a little farther to be here," he said. Plus, some of the school staff "are biking or are going to be biking to school as a result of the program." Smith himself is a bit out of range.

"I'm a little far away," he said. "I could bike here by following some side streets, but it would take quite a long time. It's 10 or 15 miles."

Norman Draper • 612-673-4547