School Districts: The Key to Our Success?

Dave CowanDo you know the key decision-makers in your school district? If you had three minutes to talk with one of them, how would you tell the Safe Routes to School story so that it was clear, coherent, compelling and crisp? If they were sold on improved academics or another benefit of walking and bicycling to school, how would you describe what the district can do to contribute to safer, more frequent trips being made by walking and bicycling?

If you’ve been through the materials, you know that Safe Routes to School 101 teaches advocates to bring together a taskforce comprised of key decision-makers and important champions. While I believe that advocates know how each of these individuals can contribute to increasing walking and bicycling, many of us are unsure precisely what power or influence individual school districts have to contribute.

The good news is this is not uncommon! In fact, The Maryland School Travel Policy Survey  (a recent study of school district policies in Maryland with regards to Safe Routes to School) aptly described the confusion that can exist between the role of the school district and the school. The report noted, along with many other telling conclusions, that many school districts avoided including supportive walking and bicycling language in their policies because although they managed school buses, they felt that the schools should make their own decisions about these, more localized, transportation issues. The interesting turnabout was the principals’ perspective on this same issue: a number of principals reported that “unless the school district explicitly supported student walking and bicycling, they felt that they were not permitted to promote walking and bicycling to the school”. This confusion of roles highlights the need for clear policies at the district level that identify roles and dictate responsibilities with regards to Safe Routes to School. This is arguably one of the most effective ways a school district can contribute to improving walking and bicycling to school.

Institutionalizing Safe Routes to School must include close partnerships with both the district and individual schools. It is our role as advocates to help align supportive messaging and improve policies regarding walking and bicycling to school between district, school and the rest of the community. Today would be a good day to find out where your district stands – your expertise might just be what will tip the scale.


Local Practice and Policy, a blog written by Dave Cowan, covers many of the multifaceted aspects of his work here at the Safe Routes to School National Partnership. Focusing on best practices, voices from the field and reflections on the Safe Routes to School movement as a whole, this blog will attempt to share a sliver of the good vibes, happy stories and great people Dave has the pleasure of working with to further Safe Routes to School on a daily basis.