The United Way of Central Alabama started work on Safe Routes to School as part of a pilot where community members identified student safety and walkability high on their list of priorities. After funding in 2012 through RWJF Healthy Kids Healthy Communities and the CDC Communities Putting Prevention to Work initiatives, they rolled out a walking school bus program and support other bicycle and pedestrian education and advocacy efforts.
Over time, due to funding changes through the federal transportation bill, work on SRTS changed. They became a standalone program without the support of other agencies. The United Way of Central Alabama has been hard at work helping schools and communities find other opportunities for funding, and trying to institutionalize the program within city budgets. They also began uniting initiatives to enhance their collective impact, working with agencies that are natural partners – clean air groups, bike coops and groups in support of complete streets.
With limited staff capacity, they were able to expand the number of schools they work with by growing their volunteer base. They spread awareness of SRTS and educate through bicycle rodeos, and are working with one district on a school travel plan. This is being modeled after programs in Ohio and across the country. One positive change they envision for SRTS in the next year is that all schools in the district will have school travel plans. The City of Birmingham has new elected officials, and this change in leadership is a fantastic opportunity for fresh energy and the passage and implementation of these travel plans, making it safer for students to walk and bike to and from school.
It has been important for their program to find short term wins as they work towards longer goals. Infrastructure changes need to happen, but efforts to identify funding can take a long time. Their biggest challenge is with school siting policies in both rural and urban areas. With the construction of new schools, it is crucial for schools to remain in close proximity to the residential areas they serve, connecting the community, and not standalone properties that are unreachable.
Community members in Central Alabama have really bought into SRTS efforts! Back when the state still had infrastructure funding, a principal at Chalkville Elementary School was advocating for a sidewalk in front of the school after a crossing guard was struck and killed by an automobile on the two lane busy road. They worked with the county manager, county commissioner and a work team at the school to compile an application for SRTS funding. The school was awarded a grant and the sidewalk was built a year later. The commissioner’s involvement in the early stages of the process increased his engagement, which can be seen when he routinely goes out and picks up litter along the road. It was particularly meaningful for the principal to see the project to fruition as it was a tribute to the crossing guard who lost his life on that same stretch of road.
Hemphill Elementary was the first school in the area with a walking school bus, and it is going on seven years strong. They strengthened partnerships over the years and benefitted from a TIGER grant the city received to improve infrastructure around the school. Prior to that, the school was going to be closed, but the community rallied around it and it remained open. The collective efforts of the community are truly inspiring. The school board acquired the property next to the school and built the school’s first ever playground with KaBOOM! funding. All these achievements were celebrated at the most recent Walk to School Day with media present to capture the enthusiasm. A community police substation opened across the road, and the entire office participated in the walking school bus and community event that day! There has been an incredible change in this community around the school where overall safety and vitality have thrived, and it was done in a way where community residents have benefitted along the way.
One of the biggest impacts of SRTS on their local community has been how the people have joined together to support it. It would not be successful without the volunteers who keep coming back – from principals to police officers. The list of the volunteers who sustain the program is a mile long, but thanks to them they are able to continue working together towards long term change that is impactful for the community at large too. From the police officers who shadow walking school buses, encouraging students with high fives, and city partners who walk routes and text Public Works to alert them to look where updates are needed, Safe Routes to School is thriving in Central Alabama.