Walking school bus: A route to improved academics for young EBALDC residents

Nov 25, 2014

By Monique Beeler


It’s an unseasonably warm fall afternoon on the blacktop outside an Oakland elementary school where kids who live at EBALDC’s Lion Creek Crossings are waiting for their school bus. Unlike a traditional school bus East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation’s version sports no wheels, no seats and no horsepower; only kid power.


Known as LCC’s walking school bus, it’s a little like a carpool without the car. Adults on foot supervise the group, assisted by a teenage LCC resident. Their young charges – up to 36 students in kindergarten through fifth grade – each weekday stroll home in between their chaperones in trios, pairs or single file, often holding hands and singing as they go. When they arrive, students attend LCC Lion’s Pride After School Program, EBALDC’s flagship education-based weekday offering.


In addition to being a hit with EBALDC friends and supporters, whose donations to the program exceeded $5,000 in 15 minutes during the October Annual Celebration, students also give the walking school bus a thumbs-up.


“I like that we all get to walk to the (Lion’s Pride) program together and go in and have snacks and talk,” says fourth grade student Tracy Logan, 9, a walking school bus participant.


While the route between school and LCC Lion’s Pride is only about a half-mile, it takes students past busy roads and requires them to cross several streets. Additional distractions, such as a stop for candy at a corner market or accompanying a friend home from school, often meant LCC Lion’s Pride students didn’t always show up on time or missed daily afterschool lessons that help reinforce their class work. Since introducing the walking school bus in 2011, punctuality and participation have grown significantly. In the past year, for instance, program enrollment jumped by 30 percent.


“It definitely makes for a safer trip back to LCC,” says Adrienne Smith-White, residence services coordinator for the apartment community, which features 567 units of mixed-income affordable housing for families and seniors, along with services including two childcare centers and a Family Resource Center.


Back at the school, walking school bus participants meet each afternoon at a set of portable classrooms behind the main two-story classroom building -- the site houses four schools on one campus, including two elementary schools. While waiting for each walking school bus student to get out of class for the day, EBALDC employees provide LCC Lion’s Pride students with athletic equipment and snacks, so balls bounce, laughter rings out and sounds of cheerful chatter surrounds the group. Several students grab light-weight vests from a bag leaning against the classroom wall. The vests, in bright colors, including neon green, yellow and orange, help keep the kids visible to drivers if they encounter traffic on the way home.


Perched on the edge of the ramp leading to one portable classroom, several little ones munch on tortilla chips and call out greetings to EBALDC Youth Programs Coordinator Michelle Sit and her colleagues who will soon guide them back to LCC Lion’s Pride.


Wearing a red button-up shirt with a neon yellow vest over it imprinted with the words “walking school bus,” Sit checks in with students as they arrive at the meeting place.


“Devondre, how’s your day been today?” she asks one boy.


“Good,” says second grader Devondre Hickerson, 7, holding up a worksheet. “My teacher let us do half our homework. I only have to do the bottom half, then I’m done forever.”


One 6-year-old, Autumn Weems, runs up to Sit and throws her arms around her teacher in greeting before dashing off to join a jump rope game.


About five little girls, ages six to eight, have grabbed an extra-long jump rope and formed a line, taking turns waiting for the right moment to hop into the arc formed by the rope. When her turn comes, Autumn bounds in under the swinging rope, the colorful beads adorning her braids bouncing each time her black sneakers with bright pink soles hit the asphalt. A chorus of young voices chants: “Teddy bear, teddy bear, turn around. Teddy bear, teddy bear, touch the ground … ”


LCC Lion’s Pride started out as a homework help program, Sit explained, but today it incorporates curriculum developed in collaboration with teachers at the elementary schools and offers off-site educational field trips, such as a recent visit to Half Moon Bay for a marine biology lesson.


“Our program is based on a school-community model, where we’re trying to make our program be a hub working with the school,” Sit says.


The model also has proved useful in strengthening neighborhood relationships and resolving potential conflicts.


For instance, following an incidence of verbal bullying when the walking school bus passed a nearby middle school, Sit wrote a letter to the private school’s leadership, who swiftly moved to correct the problem. And when a feud between parents of two young students threatened to spill over onto campus grounds, Sit and her LCC coworkers alerted their colleagues at the school and helped facilitate conversations that cleared up the dispute.


“We meet families where they’re at and are willing to work with the entire community,” says Sit, as she makes the rounds collecting the youngest students at each kindergarten classroom. Students in the program represent diverse ethnic, racial, cultural and linguistic backgrounds including, African American, Hispanic and Yemini-speaking Arabic.


A few moments later, all the school bus walkers have arrived on the playground. Sit blows a whistle and calls out: “Lion Creek, put your balls back in the bag. Please put your soccer balls away, put your bowling pins away. Please help clean up. We’ll meet in the green triangle in one minute.”


Once everyone is assembled, Sit encourages them to get out some pre-walk wiggles with a quick dance and cheer routine. Dozens of children wearing backpacks sporting Batman logos and glittery pink Monster High designs line up their toes along a painted line, then join in the chant that begins with two foot stomps followed by a single clap. In unison they recite: “All around the world there’s a beat that flows/it goes down to the city, it goes down to your toes/It goes boom, boom, clap, clap …”


After several cycles of the song, Sit helps mentally prepare students for the walk home, asking: “Can I have a volunteer for a rule?” Taking turns, participants call out the safety rules they must follow during the trip back to LCC Lion’s Pride, such as “no talking to strangers” and “no pushing anyone into the street.”


As the time nears to head off campus, most of the children line up near an exit gate, while a few older volunteers, including fourth grade student Tenai Harris, each grab a bright red, handheld stop sign. Tenai explains her role: “I walk in the front of the line.

When cars are going, the stop sign people, we stop the cars and let everyone go, and then we get back in line.”


As the walking school bus makes its way down 69th Avenue past a long row of houses with parched lawns and barred windows, the group resembles a caterpillar stretched to its full length, until the fast movement of dozens of sets of little legs pulls the whole back toward its center. Clutching her stop sign, Tenai, 9, brushes it against a mesh wire fence as she strides down the sidewalk.


Tenai says she enjoys the walking school bus atmosphere, where she and her friends sing and chat along the way.


“Sometimes it’s difficult,” she says. “Because people get in each other’s business.” But things pick up again once the walking school bus safely reaches the LCC Lion’s Pride classroom each afternoon.


“We get snacks first and everyone goes to the table, and (we) do activities and do our homework and maybe call our moms,” Tenai says. “And we have a counselor we can talk to if we get mad. Half the time, I’m happy, because I’m a sweet girl.”


Filing into the colorful classroom, crackers set out on napkins and paper cups filled with apple juice greet the walkers.


They’ll enjoy a short break before gathering in a circle on the floor to begin the afternoon lesson.

“Today, and the next couple days, you’re going to learn about biography,” explains Youth Program Associate Jamela Mozell, who instructs the kindergarten and first grade students. “Who knows where they were born?”

Pint-sized hands dart into the air, accompanied by a chorus of “Me!”

Mozell gives the nod to a kindergartener seated near the corner of the room’s colorful alphabet-patterned rug. As a sign that it’s his turn to speak, Mozell passes him a stuffed Curious George doll.

“My name is Enemesio,” says Enemesio Ayala, 5, clutching the toy.

“Hi, Enemesio,” his classmates recite.

“And I was born here in Oakland,” he says, as he passes Curious George to the child seated to his left.

According to a schedule printed on the classroom whiteboard, after 10 minutes of community circle time, the students will spend 35 minutes completing homework and reviewing it with their Lion’s Pride instructors, followed by a brief recess and half hour of book time. It’s a formula that’s adding up to success for these young residents of

LCC, one of EBALDC’s more recent development projects reflecting its commitment to building safe, vibrant and healthy neighborhoods.

At least one mother, Miaad Abdallah, says she’s seen close-up the difference EBALDC makes in the lives of its youngest residents.

Since Abdallah’s 6-year-old son, Kasem Wahib, joined the walking school bus and Lion’s Pride after school lessons, she says she’s noticed a significant change in the first grade student, who teachers describe as curious, sweet and a huge soccer fan. With support from EBALDC staff, Kasem’s also proving a receptive student.

When Abdallah enrolled him in the LCC programs about 1 ½ years ago, Kasem began receiving individual tutoring. Today, the progress he’s made in learning numbers and the English alphabet gives her great hope for her son’s future, says Abdallah, whose family speaks Yemeni-Arabic at home.

“He loves the after school program and his teachers, Ms. Michelle and Ms. Jamela,” Abdahllah says. "I want my son to be anything, like a doctor -- and your program will help him to be that.”