Teton County school’s walking school bus has returned, but program tweaks to accommodate more students are troubling some parents.
After initial trepidation, the walking train was a big success last year.
After removing some bus stops, Teton County School District No. 1 tried a new pilot program. Adult supervision, plus a wagon for heavy backpacks, helped students and families walk safely to and from the downtown school. It’s called a “bus” because students are “picked up” at designated stops and then walked to school along a route that would otherwise be driven.
The route this year changed so it didn’t reach farther east than Willow Street in an effort to expand west at the same time, serving more families. The new route provides an alternative to bus transportation for families living near the rodeo grounds, Snow King, Our Lady of the Mountains Catholic church and the Center for the Arts, designed to “transition 44 students who are now in the expanded Snow King/Rodeo grounds walk radius.”
“The TCSD Transportation Department adjusted the 2018-19 walking school bus to align with the bus route changes adopted by the Board of Trustees in May,” wrote Colby Stevens, the transportation director, in an email. “This service is a courtesy and is not required, or even promoted by the state of Wyoming, the main source of funding for public school transportation.”
Former transportation director Ed Ahlum, who retired at the end of the 2017-18 school year, is actually coming back to lead the program.
Mother Katherine Tomkinson, who initially had doubts about the walking bus, said she and other parents on her side of town are upset with the change and don’t believe it’s safe for kids to walk west from Redmond Street, on streets with no sidewalks, especially through the snow, to meet up with the new route.
“I’m super happy that they included another route for more kids, but I think they should have done one route along Willow to include all of these kids east of Willow,” Tomkinson said. “I feel like it’s a large group to exclude in their attempt to include the west side of East Jackson.”
She plans to drive her children to school, for now. Drop-off and pick-up lines, she noted, have shortened since the opening of Munger Mountain Elementary School.
Mother Calla Grimes also said the new route also doesn’t work for her.
“They did offer it to us, except for the fact that basically by the time we get him where they pick up, we’re basically at school,” she said. “So in that way it’s not helpful to us.”
Implemented last year
Teton County School District No. 1 was the first district in the state to give a walking bus a try, but walking school buses are used around the nation. Boulder, Colorado, has at least six walking bus routes.
Grade reconfiguration last year was a driver of bus stop elimination and the impetus for the walking bus, which was originally only a fall pilot program that dragged into winter due to its popularity once parents and students got on board. Last year the school board decided to reconfigure Colter and Jackson elementary schools. Colter, which used to have students in grades three through five, now also has kindergartners and other younger students. As a result three bus stops close to the school were added. Because Jackson Elementary, formerly a K-2 school, now has older students, four stops within its area were removed.
Wyoming law states that when it is safe students within 1 mile of an elementary school, 1.5 miles of a middle school and 2 miles of a high school should walk.
Transportation outside those zones is funded by the state. But if a school board decides it isn’t safe for students to walk, exceptions can be granted and the state will continue to reimburse.
Winter weather raised questions — how far is too far for a kindergartner, for example, to walk outside in below-freezing morning temperatures? While such concerns haven’t fully abated, parents are still worried about bad drivers and a lack of sidewalks.
Grimes painted a picture of general confusion about who gets bus service and who doesn’t. Neighbors across the street, for example, get bus service, another parent down the street received different notices for her children — one had service, one didn’t, even at the same address.
“Every story I keep hearing it seems like they are not fully organized in figuring this out,” she said.
While getting her first-grade son to school isn’t always fun, Grimes said she can make it work. She loved the walking bus last year, saying it was “incredible,” “really successful” and “so nice they offered that.”
“Even through the coldest winter months they were doing it,” Grimes said. “There were 10 to 15 kids every morning I was there. It was definitely, in my opinion, for a town as small as ours, used.”
While she isn’t comfortable having her 6-year-old walk almost a mile by himself, she’d rather have transportation scaled back than the alternatives.
“I’m personally trying to be patient,” she said. “I know there are a lot of growing pains right now. Most of us that live in the area are very fortunate that we can coordinate our lives and get the kids where they need to be. If this is the difference between teachers being paid or an activity being provided, I’m OK.”
Bad drivers, no sidewalks
Tomkinson said she sees reckless drivers daily in East Jackson. And not all the streets have sidewalks all or even part of the way to Willow Street.
The speed limit on Redmond Street was recently lowered, and a speed indicator was added at the corner of Redmond Street and East Simpson Avenue. A new stop sign was posted at the corner of Hansen Avenue and Redmond Street, but Tomkinson isn’t confident that will protect her children.
“I don’t think people care,” she said. “I’ve been in a taxi before when he just ran it.”
She’d like to see a crossing guard at Broadway and Redmond Street.
“That would be a huge benefit for those who lost the Redmond route,” Tomkinson said.
The district said it isn’t forcing parents to send their kids down streets they deem unsafe.
“If a parent does not feel the route meets their needs, TCSD encourages them to make other arrangements,” Stevens said. “As a reminder, according to state rules, parents are responsible for the transportation of elementary students to school if they live within a mile of the school, which is the criteria used in setting the 2018-2019 walk radius and bus routes.”
After losing bus service, Tomkinson said, she really just wanted to be warned. A technical glitch, Stevens said, caused the normal parent communication to not go out as planned Aug. 23 — something that caught Tomkinson and other parents off guard before a holiday weekend and the first day of school.
“I think that was just sort of the icing on the cake after years of losing the bus and then losing the walking bus,” Tomkinson said. “With the walk three-quarters of the way there with no sidewalk, it’s much safer for me to just drive them.”
Stevens acknowledged the mistake.
“The transportation department understands that parents received late notification of the change, and for that we apologize,” he wrote. “That said, the transportation department voluntarily offered the WSB as a temporary service to east Jackson families at its inception in the fall of 2017 as families adjusted to increased walking parameters. We apologize if parents expected the service to be offered on a permanent basis.”