Walking bus runs nicely

Washington Elementary program cuts rates of absenteeism, tardiness




Up St. Johns Boulevard and S Street, they walk in a single-file line. Led by adults in yellow reflector vests, the students walk along the streets, and the number grows in size after the frequent stops.

After lingering outside an apartment complex, a whistle blows and they are off again.

On a crisp and sunny October morning, the group of more than 30 youngsters would appear like any other Walking School Bus making its way to school.

But in the Rose Village neighborhood, it means a lot more. At Washington Elementary School, which has one of the county’s highest rates of students receiving free and reduced-price lunches, these pupils need the program to ensure they’re at class on time or there at all, said Jennifer Riordan, the school’s family community resource coordinator.

There are no buses that serve the school, as all students live within a one-mile radius.

The program “was started partly to improve the tardiness and absentee rates,” Riordan explained.

And it has paid off. Prior to the launch of the program in 2008, more than one-third of the students were chronically tardy or absent. Now, it’s down to one-fifth of students, she said.

The popular program, the first in the Vancouver school district, has led to several similar programs in schools throughout the county, including Sacajawea Elementary School and Battle Ground’s Daybreak Primary School.

Other Vancouver neighborhoods, including Hough, have tried to get the program up and running. But a lack of volunteers has stymied the efforts, neighborhood leaders say.

‘Grandpa and Grandma’

Volunteers, some parents and some residents who simply want to help out, are what Washington Elementary School has in its favor. The school has 14 volunteers, many of whom walk one of the three routes every day, Riordan said. More than 70 students use the Walking School Bus.

Among the volunteers are a retired couple, Larry and Eleanor Sefton. They heard about the Walking School Bus program through their church, First United Methodist Church.

Longtime central Vancouver residents, they saw it as a way to give back to the Rose Village area and stay active. Three years later, it has become much more, they say.

They know all the kids by name; the students call them “Grandpa and Grandma.” And they frequently get together for barbecues and holidays with another family who volunteers.

“It’s like all volunteering,” Eleanor Sefton said. “You get back more than you give.”

Eleanor loves being with the children. “The absolutely most fun day is when it’s snowing,” she said with a smile. Because the kids all hold their heads up to the sky with their tongues sticking out.

One of the other volunteers likes to play games with the youngsters. One day not too long ago, the volunteer hid plastic frogs in various spots along the route for them to find.

“They have fun with it,” Riordan said.

And it brings a happy, constant presence to the neighbors of Rose Village, many of whom routinely wave to the youngsters as they walk by.

“I think it’s a great community builder,” Eleanor said.

Laura McVicker: www.twitter.com/col_courts; www.facebook.com/reportermcvicker; laura.mcvicker@columbian.com; 360-735-4516.