With each step along tree-shaded Northeast Sixth Avenue early Wednesday, the last moments of summer vacation for 10-year-old Alex Beltran-Villa faded nearer to oblivion.
Young Alex didn’t mind.
“Yeah!” he exulted, raising both arms over his head. “Me like learning!”
A moment later, the fifth-grader who’s added 3 inches to his 5-foot frame since June (tallest kid at Sacajawea Elementary School, by most accounts) reflected on the occasion a bit more earnestly.
“I’m not so sad to see summer end, ’cause I like school,” Alex said, sporting a Pac-Man T-shirt and small backpack. He does enjoy the learning, besides seeing good friends again, he said. It’s not like the past two months were boring, either: There were long camping trips and swimming, plenty of family fun.
“We did a lot of things, but I’d just rather have school than summer. I like it, period,” he explained.
Alex was among 21,000-plus Vancouver Public Schools students who began a new year Wednesday, many with a similar sunny outlook. In the Battle Ground district, nearly 13,000 students did the same.
They were the last of the nine Clark County school districts to get classes under way, a full week after many had opened their doors.
Alex and his brother, Noah, entering fourth grade, weren’t walking alone.
Walking School Bus
They were among 18 students in one of Sacajawea’s two Walking School Bus groups, a parent volunteer-organized group that gathers in the Hazel Dell neighborhood each school morning starting at 7:30, an hour before class begins.
With flag-carrying mothers for safety escorts, the students stop at designated street corners on the half-mile route per an official time schedule, collecting more schoolmates as they approach the campus.
On Wednesday, orange T-shirt-wearing leader Jessica Trengrove, mother of two children in the bunch, set a good-natured but firm tone for many hikes to follow.
“Rachel and Jacob, get up here! You have to pick up the pace,” Trengrove barked. “You’ve got to stay with us.” Students were matched in pairs, to help keep the line in shape.
A minute later: “We’re staying out of people’s yards this year. Get on the asphalt, please,” Trengrove ordered, after a few children meandered onto a grassy slope.
There are efforts to launch a third Walking School Bus route this year, along 114th Street. That’s because Vancouver district leaders chose to shave busing costs by $250,000 this year by eliminating about seven routes that served several elementary, middle and high schools. That was part of $9.5 million in budget reductions, triggered by state and federal school spending rollbacks.
As a result, an estimated 100 of 410 enrolled Sacajawea students in kindergarten through fifth grade are without bus service this year. School leaders would like most to become walkers or bike riders, rather than join the driveway-clogging parade of automobiles.
So far, no volunteers have emerged to lead the 114th Street Walking School Bus. But veteran escorts remain optimistic.
“As more people see us, they’ll walk and not add to the congestion here,” said volunteer Julie Parkes, who has spearheaded the Walking Bus campaign at Sacajawea for three years. She’s eager to spread the gospel across town, speaking at organizational meetings elsewhere.
“There’s just not enough schools that are getting the kids out and moving,” Parkes said, touting the health benefits of the foot commute in the face of mounting childhood obesity and other troubles. “We’ve got to start here. Once they get to middle or high school, it’s too late.”
Parkes has dropped 100 pounds and plans to become a fitness trainer since she began walking her daughter, Jordan, and son, Joshua, along a second Sacajawea Walking Bus route. “It’s changed my life,” she said.
Even Alex has noticed a lift from his school-year hikes: “It gives me exercise,” he said approvingly.
Counting Parkes’ group, Wednesday’s Walking School Bus total was 29 students. Of course, many parents and others chose to personally hike or drive children to Sacajawea for that special first-day send-off.
Not everyone took kindly to losing the school bus service.
Some neighbors pulled children out of Sacajawea and began home-schooling when informed of the changes, said Patricia Gaspar. An escort, she accompanied Trengrove’s herd with two girls and two boys of her own.
It’s become the family norm, except in poor weather, Gaspar said. An older son is walking to Columbia River High School this year. She much prefers to join the hike: “Makes me feel refreshed in the morning; good way to start your day,” she said.
Miles away, in Battle Ground’s Daybreak neighborhood, a heavy stream of foot traffic flowed toward the Daybreak Primary and Middle School joint campus.
More students arrive by foot than at any other Battle Ground school, thanks to a dense, pedestrian-friendly patch of suburbia. During a two-day survey taken in October 2009, roughly 450 of the 1,200 students at the K-8 campus either walked, cycled, scootered or skate-boarded to school.
“It’s kind of like ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ coming to our schools,” said Jill Dutchess, Daybreak Primary School principal. Between 75 and 80 percent of Daybreak students live inside the designated walking zone, she said.
As a result, just six buses make the rounds daily to deliver about 300 students.
The school has established two “Walking Monitor” routes, similar to the Walking School Bus model. The district used part of a Washington state “Safe Routes to Schools” grant to install an overhead crosswalk arm and flashing light on Northeast 20th Avenue at Onsdorff Boulevard.
Of course, opening day, and September, in general, give a skewed picture.
“Especially the first few weeks of school, parents are more involved” in student transport, said Brian Hanson, Daybreak Middle School associate principal. “Soon, we see more school kids on bikes, scooters or walking.”
Howard Buck: 360-735-4515; http://www.twitter.com/col_schools; email@example.com.