ELLSWORTH, Maine — No bouncy seats, no creaky doors and no flashing lights.
For a group of local children who attend Ellsworth Elementary Middle School, the morning commute to the Forest Avenue campus still involves waiting to be picked up and sharing the trip with classmates. But instead of riding a bus, they go on foot — along with a couple of trained volunteers donning bright orange vests who make sure they arrive safely.
The practice of walking to school may predate the internal combustion engine, but it is only in recent years the concept officially has been adopted by several elementary schools in Maine.
The East End Community School in Portland has had a ‘ walking school bus’ program since 2013, according to the Bicycle Coalition of Maine. This year, with the help of some grant funding, elementary schools in Ellsworth and Norway have implemented programs in which they organize, screen and train volunteers to escort pupils to and from school every day.
According to a press release from the bicycle coalition, other partners in the program include the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Maine Safe Routes to School Program and the Maine Department of Transportation.
Roughly a dozen pupils take part in the Ellsworth walking program, depending on the day of the week, while in Norway participation grew quickly from the eight pupils who pre-registered before it started.
“As we walked the first morning, more and more students showed up on the route with their registration forms, ready to walk with us,” Rebecca Powell, coordinator of the program at Guy E. Rowe Elementary School in Norway said in the press release. “We ended up with 22 students.”
David Norwood, the Ellsworth school’s physical education teacher, coordinates the Ellsworth program. He said Thursday the grant — $5,000 per year for two years — will cover the costs of training and scheduling the volunteer escorts and pay for equipment. Each volunteer is outfitted with a vest, a flag for signalling traffic and a backpack that contains first aid supplies.
Norwood said having the children walk to school has an impact on their demeanor at school. Studies have shown that regular physical activity helps with academic retention in the classroom, he said, and local teachers have noticed a difference.
“They show up to school in such a better state of mind,” Norwood said. “It takes [the children] only 15 to 20 minutes to walk, but the fresh air and little bit of exercise that they get before the school day starts [really helps].”
Paul Markosian, an Ellsworth school board member, said there are other benefits, too. The pupils get a better understanding of how to get around in their neighborhoods, he said, and it even helps save on fuel.
The buses run through the abutting neighborhoods anyway, but there is less stopping, less idling and takes the buses a shorter time to make the same trip, Markosian said. Children who live too far away from the school to walk still get there faster because their bus makes fewer stops as it gets close.
“It’s a benefit even to those kids who aren’t on the walking school bus,” Markosian said. It results in “not only burning less fuel but [also] costing people less time.”
The walking route in Ellsworth, which got under way in April, starts downtown at the intersection of Hancock and Pine streets, on the other side of Main Street. It is open to pupils in kindergarten through eighth grade, but it mostly is younger children who take part, Norwood said. There are nine volunteers who escort the kids at least one day per week, plus another eight people trained as backups in case a regular volunteer has to miss a day.
Norwood said the school could expand the program to three routes, each of which would be within 1 mile of the school, but additional funding would have to be secured through either another grant or with taxpayer support.
Sarah Hardison, a volunteer escort whose son Brady is a first-grader at the Ellsworth school, said Thursday she and her son enjoy walking to school with his classmates.
“It’s really great to get them out and moving first thing in the morning. They need it,” Hardison said. “I think it’s awesome. I hope we get more routes in by next fall.”