Lincoln Park in Washington, DC’s Capitol Hill neighborhood comes alive every morning—children swing on the playground equipment, dogs chase balls, bicyclists take shortcuts to get to work, and cars, trucks and buses snake around the park’s four corners on their morning commute. There’s just enough chaos to make an elementary school student want a hand to hold and a friend to walk with.
That’s the idea of the Walking School Bus—there’s safety in numbers.
Every week at Maury Elementary School, families gather in the surrounding neighborhood to walk to school together. This morning the crowd was especially large—more than 100 students on foot, bikes and scooters joined their parents, grandparents and younger siblings in strollers for the stroll to campus. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan joined in with D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, Chancellor Michelle Rhee, and Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez of the U.S. Department of Transportation, which manages the federal Safe Routes to School program to encourage more of the nation’s students to walk or bike to school.
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The group that had clustered in Lincoln Park quickly spread out as those on wheels sped to the front. Walking in the middle of the pack with Chancellor Rhee, Mayor Fenty yelled ahead to Arne, who, at 6 ft. 5 in., has an unusually long stride.
“Secretary, you’ve got to slow down with those long legs, man,” the mayor said. “You’re leaving us little-legged people behind.”
For Niah Gamble, 5, and her classmates at Maury, Tuesday was the second day of school. In her hair Niah had tied ribbons in the school’s colors—blue and white—which also matched her brand-new uniform. On her feet were sparkly purple shoes, complementing a pink backpack that seemed unusually stuffed for a kindergartener.
She held the hand of her grandmother, Ellen Williams. Even before her granddaughter enrolled, Ms. Williams was volunteering her time at Maury. “What I do for her, I do for all,” she said. After the first day of classes, when Niah’s grandmother asked her to draw a picture of what she had liked best about school, she drew her teacher, Mamie Vick.
Ms. Vick greeted Niah and her 18 other students on the playground as they lined up to go inside. “We had a great day yesterday,” she said. “I think everybody went home happy.”
Ms. Vick is going back to school herself, attending a weekend program at a local university to get her master’s degree in education. Even with 22 years of experience, she’s still seeking to improve her teaching.
Maury Elementary’s spirit of family and community involvement wasn’t lost on Secretary Duncan. “If every school had this kind of camaraderie, this kind of energy, we’d be a much better education system,” he said during a news conference on the playground.
Walking to school is not only a way to be safe, Arne said; it’s a way to get exercise. “It may be a little bit old school, but I think it’s absolutely what our children need,” he said.
The school year is off to a smooth start, Chancellor Rhee reported. That hasn’t always been the case. There was a time not long ago, Arne said, when “DC had a school system that the city could not be proud of.” Now, he said, its public schools are on the right track.
“DC is fast becoming a model for the country, and I could not be prouder” of the district’s progress, he said. (Update @ 12:15 PM: Later today the Department further acknowledged the District of Columbia’s progress by awarding it up to $75 million from the Race to the Top program to pursue a bold education reform plan. DC and 9 states all won Round 2 grants in this unprecedented competition.)
Today’s visit to Maury Elementary was a prelude to the Secretary’s Back to School bus tour, which rolls out Thursday in Little Rock, Ark. You can follow the “Courage in the Classroom” tour online at www.ED.gov/bustour and via Twitter and Facebook.
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