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Saturday, April 29, 2006 - Page updated at 12:17 PM

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Make way for the walking bus

Seattle Times staff reporter

Yellow bus after yellow bus pulled up to the curb, then pulled away, but a group of Bailey Gatzert Elementary students continued to wait on the sidewalk. That's because their ride to school isn't a ride at all. It's their own two feet.

Every morning starts out like this for this group of eight that meets near the bus stop, then walks to school with parent volunteer Amina Hashim.

A state grant helped fund the city's first "walking school-bus" pilot program at Bailey Gatzert, a Central Area school, starting in December 2004. Three groups of children and trained parent volunteers meet and walk together from Squire Park, Beacon Hill and Yesler Terrace.

Although it seems simple, walking to school is increasingly rare. In the 1960s, most children walked to school or rode their bikes, said David Levinger, executive director of Feet First, a Seattle nonprofit that coordinated the walking school buses at Gatzert through a grant. An informal Seattle Public Schools survey last year indicated that about 12 percent of Seattle schoolchildren walk or ride their bikes to school. That's close to a national average of about 13 percent, Levinger said.

Since then, other community organizations have joined the effort to encourage kids to walk to school. Sanislo, High Point and Fairmount Park elementaries are working with Feet First to secure a grant for similar programs in West Seattle. A $60,000 grant from the Group Health Community Foundation will pay for the program to expand to Maple, Dearborn Park, Wing Luke and Emerson in the Rainier Valley. The grants help pay for an employee to recruit volunteers and train them, among other things. The programs are meant to teach kids to be safe pedestrians and help fight obesity by getting them in the habit of exercising daily.

As the group walked the six blocks down the hill to school Friday, four girls hung back while the boys goofed around. One showed off a purple Bailey Gatzert shirt, held it up, then put it on under his backpack.

Hashim followed closely and shouted reminders to stop at intersections, look both ways, stay on the sidewalk. They listened, sometimes screeching to a halt at the sound of her voice.

"It's really built community — community awareness of our surrounding areas around here, about the importance of knowing about the safety status of our streets ... the impact that each one of us as school members can have on improving things," said Norma Zavala, the principal at Gatzert. In a school as diverse as hers, she said, "this is something that connects with all ethnic groups. ... Every parent wants safety for their child."

It's also been a way for immigrant parents — usually the toughest for schools to connect with — to get involved in school. Hashim, who moved to Seattle in 1999 from the Oromia region of Ethiopia, volunteered after a parent meeting. Once she started walking kids to school, she got used to hanging around for a while in the cafeteria while her two children ate breakfast. Now she always stays until about 10 a.m. to help out.

"Once I started [getting] involved as a volunteer, I realized that there is a need for parent involvement and parents to be involved in school," she said through an interpreter.

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Bailey Gatzert doesn't have a PTSA, but the walking school-bus parents have become important volunteers, Zavala said.

"They are our core parents now. These are the parents that everyone knows."

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

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