UCF's Walking School Bus isn't a way for students to get around campus — it's a program geared toward impacting children and their communities.
Walking School Buses are groups of children, from kindergarten to eighth grade, who walk together to school. This national movement has its local affiliate through the UCF Center for Public and Nonprofit Management and receives funding from the Florida Department of Transportation. The program promotes safety, health and friendship to the kids who walk with the "school bus."
Joshua Gross, program assistant with Walking School Bus and graduate student at UCF's Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy, designed and maintains the online registration system for families, kids and students. He said he has personally seen the program's positive impact on children and their families.
"I like to work on Walking School Bus because it's a simple initiative with a lot of impact. Walking to school as a group seems to cheer up the kids and parents quite a bit, and it's good to teach kids how to safely navigate their neighborhoods on foot," Gross said.
Florida had the third-most pedestrian fatalities in 2012, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Additionally, Smart Growth America released a report that named four Florida cities as being the most dangerous cities in the country for pedestrians, and Orlando was first on that list. With these frightening statistics, Walking School Bus strives to teach children pedestrian safety as they walk to school. Kids are taught to use the crosswalks and safety patrols and to walk on the left side of the road if there aren't any sidewalks.
Another goal of the Walking School Bus is health. By walking to school, children get an extra 30 minutes of exercise each day. Tim Pehlke, the assistant director for Special Projects at the UCF Center for Public and Nonprofit Management, says that children are more attentive in class after the morning walk, and parents noticed the children were better behaved.
"If you walk in a program like ours, you're going to get 20 to 30 minutes of extra physical activity, which has some corollary benefits in the classroom. [For] kids that exercise in the morning — there's been research on the brain [for this] — they're better able to pay attention in class," he said. "Kids that walk [in the afternoon program] are little calmer when they go home and the parents are noticing that the kids are better behaved."
The program also helps create new friendships. Children make friends with other kids and parents can connect through the program by volunteering.
Walking School Bus also has an impact on traffic, with the number of vehicles on the road greatly reduced. Stevenson Elementary, for example, has seen a decline of about 70 cars at the school's car loop.
"The whole focus of the center is really to apply research programs in the community ... so really, to take some of the research the university generates and do things that benefit the general public," Pehlke said. "This is a project [in which] we're learning what makes effective walking school buses, which is going to have an impact statewide, possibly even nationally."
Ten schools are currently registered with the program, reaching around 500 youth with the help of close to 100 volunteers this year.