09/27/10

Interview with Lyndale Community School's Principal Ossie Brooks-James about Bike/Walk to School DayInterview with Lyndale Community School's Principal Ossie Brooks-James about Bike/Walk to School Day

 

Interview with Lyndale Community School's Principal Ossie Brooks-James about Bike/Walk to School Day

International Walk to School Day is October 6th. As part of our work on Bike Walk Week-which is adding an autumn week for the first time this year--Bike Walk Twin Cities has partnered with Safe Routes to School   Walk "and Bike" to School Day  the major event of Autumn Bike Walk Week (Oct 2nd-10th). BWTC's Amber Collett talked with Principal Brooks-James at Lyndale Community School about their participation in last year's Bike Walk to School Day and what the school has planned for this year.

Amber: How did Lyndale Community School become involved with Safe Routes to School?

Principal Brooks-James: We initially became involved through a parent. Scott, the parent, heard about the program, then researched it and brought the idea to us.  By way of history, our school is currently going through a transitional shift and our school boundaries have changed. We have the great good fortune to have received parents who were able to do something like research the Safe routes to School program. Our boundaries extended to include neighborhoods west and south of the school. With this shift, our demographics are changing. Different demographics bring unique challenges and fruits to the table, but the mix is wonderful for our school. We are fortunate that this parent had the time and resources to help us get involved.

Amber: I know that last year Lyndale Community School had walking buses-in which a group of students walk together from a set location (such as a nearby park) to school as an alternative to riding a bus.What did the students think of the walking school bus?

Principal Brooks-James: Yes, Scott initiated the walking bus idea from the south end of the school, but he also took on developing flyers to get other parents involved outside of his neighborhood. We even had the Mayor walk with us from 25th and Pillsbury to the school! It was like a caravan, they picked up kids all along the route. And I'm told that one of our 1st graders, who is rather outgoing, had lots of questions for the Mayor and was trying to tell him how to run City Hall! He has suggestions for me every day he gets off the bus -he always wants me to monitor, evaluate, or change something! So this 1st grader was asking the Mayor, "How did you get your job, can you fix the streets?" He was very enthusiastic and had a great time.

Overall, the students really enjoyed the walking buses. We had stickers for them and the teachers got involved. Some teachers even biked from Northeast Minneapolis!

Amber: Is Scott still involved and who else is leading Bike Walk Day this year?

Principal Brooks-James: Scott is still involved and is helping to spearhead it again this year. Last year, 90% of the students were on free and reduced lunches. 56% of the students were non-English speaking children. Last year, Bike Walk to School Day was on a Thursday. We had students enthusiastically explaining the program to their non-English speaking parents, and children being children, they didn't tell the whole story. We had to explain to the parents that we weren't forcing the students to walk, that we didn't do away with the bus system, but that this was a program that their child had opted to participate in. We translated the materials into Somali and Spanish, but some parents are not literate in their first language. We wanted to emphasize that biking and walking to school is healthy, it builds community, and it is good for the children. The children enjoy it and it will make them better students because they'll feel invigorated when they arrive at school. That is going to be the by-product of all of this activity and it is just wonderful for the students, the parents, and the school.

Amber: Have you seen the energy of Bike Walk to School Day carry past that one day?

Principal Brooks-James: Yes, more of our students are walking and biking -and most importantly, they are taking it upon themselves to do it! They are making healthy choices for themselves.

Amber: What sources of support have you found for this program?

Principal Brooks-James: The Minneapolis Public School District and the Safe Routes to School program have both been very supportive. We've had parent meetings and focus meetings about biking and walking where the parents are able to talk with Safe Routes to School representatives about their concerns and excitement around the program. Our parents are on polar ends of the socio-economic spectrum and have very different orientations to the process. The more affluent parents on the South and West sides have different views than the less affluent parents to the North. Their lens and connotation about why you walk and about how to view this program are totally different. We're doing a lot of orientation, acculturation, and re-thinking with the parents. Even if parents walked in their previous countries, walking and driving are associated with certain economic status here in the United States. The process will take a while, but we wanted to students to know that they can walk to school and enjoy it.

Amber: Have you found a message that resonates with either set of parents?

Principal Brooks-James: I think the more that we talk about the program, the more the parents understand how physically and mentally beneficial it can be to a child.  With the national campaign on childhood obesity, people are talking about children's health more often. Parents are aware of the campaign -some of our parents more than others. But we wanted to focus on the idea of community. What does it take to build a community? It is a very freeing experience to have children that are free to walk to school. Seeing children in the neighborhood sends a message to other residents that you don't have to barricade yourself behind your doors. If children are allowed to walk through the neighborhood, than that neighborhood may be an ok place and the residents don't have to be afraid. The more that the children are out, the more other people will come out. With many people out and about in the area, the less likely it will be that bad things will happen. There will be a sense of community -people will connect with each other.

Amber: What are you planning for Bike Walk to School day this year?

Principal Brooks-James: We're just beginning the planning stages, but the children and teachers will be walking and bicycling to school. We have a banner up in the hallway letting parents and students know that Bike/Walk to School Day is Oct. 6th. On the day, we'll be giving out stickers that say "I Biked" or "I Walked." We're going to be sending flyers home to the parents encouraging them to walk with their children or to volunteer on that day. As in the past, we're strongly encouraging teachers and staff to participate. It's a great feeling for the students to walk to school with their teacher. It provides a space for them to talk with their teacher about things not related to class! It encourages relationships to grow. Last year, I picked up all the students that missed their walking bus, and they walked to school with me. And, of course, we're going to have a prize drawing at all grade levels.  We have about 470 students and quite a few of them will participate.

Amber: What advice do you have for other schools participating in BikeWalk to School Day?

Principal Brooks-James: The more enthusiasm that you can rev up among the students, the better. We gave our students blue and white t-shirts that said "Lyndale Community School -I Walked to School." They were so popular that we ran out! The students loved to have the t-shirts with the school colors and the eagle logo.

The more that you can talk about the process of walking as a beneficial activity, the more successful you'll be. You need parent buy-in early on. I was talking to another principal about their program. They divided the neighborhood into sections and had each section walk on a different day. There are different strategies and you have to find the one that works for you school.

Amber: Thank you and any other thoughts you wanted to add?

Principal Brooks-James: I find it interesting how different philosophical ideas ebb and flow. I was describing this program to my sister and she responded, "You mean people have to plan a campaign for walking to school? Isn't that just what kids do?" It shows how much a culture or a value system can change in a relatively short amount of time.

When we started this whole process, we didn't even have a usable bike rack! There was an old rusty rack that looked like the wind would blow it away. I let the students bring their bikes inside the school to make sure they were safe. Then we talked with the Lyndale Neighborhood Association and found out that the city is putting in a bike path along 1st and Blaisdell Ave. The school, the neighborhood association, and the city were all on the same page about biking! We did get a new bike rack and now we're deciding where to put a second bike rack because the first one is filled all the time. On Oct. 6th, we'll be giving away bike locks and helmets as prizes to students.  Now they can bike, and bike safely.

Note to readers: The new bicycle lanes on 1st and Blaisdell Avenues in Minneapolis are funded by Bike Walk Twin Cities as part the federal nonmotorized transportation pilot program.