Groups collaborate to help students be active and ready to learn

Creating opportunities for New Orleans students to be physically active around their schools was the focus of the KidsWalk Coalition’s Breakfast Roundtable in July.

The gathering – titled Active and Ready to Learn – drew more than 35 school personnel, transportation engineers and planners, physical activity advocates, youth-based organizations and education researchers.

The meeting’s focus – on transportation’s role in the health and academic readiness of students – led to discussions about how schools can tap into existing resources and create partnerships to incorporate physical activity into regular transportation trips.

“Children who walk to and from school most days of the week are more likely to have higher levels of physical activity,” said Kathryn Parker-Karst, director of KidsWalk Coalition at the Tulane Prevention Research Center. Higher levels of physical fitness are linked to better academic performance, she said.

But, as many attendees noted, students face challenges if they try to walk or bike to school. Some students have to take public transportation, running into problems when buses are delayed or law enforcement accuses them of truancy.

One of the roots of the issue is that educational reforms in the past several years have led to open enrollment. Among other effects, this has resulted in many students ending up at schools outside their neighborhoods. And that means longer commutes for students. Before Hurricane Katrina, about 50 percent of students lived within one mile of their school. After Katrina, that number dropped to about 22 percent, said Debra Vaughan, director of research at Tulane’s Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives. Vaughan said the Cowen Institute, which co-sponsored the Breakfast Roundtable, wants to continue looking into how long commutes impact student behavior and other issues.

One way schools can improve their students’ physical activity levels is through the Safe Routes to School grants program. Safe Routes to School provides up to $250,000 for improvements to sidewalks, crosswalks, signage, and traffic signals and other pedestrian infrastructure, and up to $50,000 for biking and walking safety education, encouragement and enforcement programs.

“Safe walking and biking are things kids don’t automatically know anymore. We need to teach them,” said Shalanda Cole, Safe Routes to School coordinator at the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development.

Audubon Charter School’s grant will include a “walking school bus” to take adult-supervised students to and from parks near the school, said the school’s development special Sofia Griffies. Some teachers will become certified bike-safety instructors under the grant, Griffies added. The grant will also help improve the parking and intersections around the schools.

Cyndi Nguyen, executive director of Vietnamese Initiatives for Economic Training, said her organization decided to work with Einstein Charter on a Safe Routes to School grant because she saw children weren’t able to play outside in the Michoud community and parents were afraid of their children walking to school.

The grant also links schools to transportation officials so that any work to sidewalks, streets and signs around schools is coordinated with the New Orleans Department of Public Works. The department is a resource for grantee schools, giving guidance on how to make changes to streets and sidewalks and possibly leverage grant money with other road work money, said Col. Mark Jernigan, director of Public Works.

The event was hosted at local business incubator Propeller: A Force for Social Innovation. The event was made possible thanks to generous support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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