By TEDDYE SNELL
Many residents driving to work in Tahlequah early Wednesday noticed an odd phenomenon during their commute: hundreds of children walking to school.
Wednesday, students, parents and members of the community participated in Tahlequah’s second annual Walk to School Day. Elementary schools in Tahlequah numbered among 3,300 institutions participating nationwide as part of an international effort to encourage more families to enjoy the health benefits of getting out of their cars and on their feet.
The local event was coordinated by Cherokee Nation/Healthy Nation, in partnership with Tahlequah Public Schools, Tahlequah Public Schools Safe Schools, the city of Tahlequah, the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma, and Northeastern State University.
At 7:30 a.m., Greenwood Elementary School participants gathered in the parking lot of the Tahlequah Senior Citizens Center, one of three meeting points for the event. All walking teams were led by members of the Safe Routes to School team, and walkers received prizes for participation.
“We’re so very excited about Walk to School Day,” said Susan VanZant, principal at Greenwood. “We think this is a great way to get exercise, and good for physical fitness. These folks are real troopers, getting out on the first 48-degree day. It’s kind of chilly, but we’ll warm up once we start walking.”
VanZant said she appreciates the efforts of Cherokee Nation and the city.
“The city has worked really hard, as has the Cherokee Nation, to get sidewalks installed and make it safer for us to walk to school,” said VanZant.
Chris Cline, father of 5-year-old twins Jack and John, accompanied his boys on their walk to school.
“This sounds like fun,” said Cline. “[When I was growing up], I had to cross the bypass to get to Greenwood, so I didn’t get to walk to school very often. We live much closer now, and I think this will be fun.”
Students set out from the meet-up locations and were accompanied by TPS School Resource Officers, Cherokee Nation marshals on bicycles, school principals and other city officials. Coordinators were decked out in neon yellow vests for safety, and groups stopped at every corner, looking both ways before crossing intersections.
Once walkers arrived at their destination, they were rewarded with prizes, including backpacks that contained flashing reflectors and pedometers.
At Greenwood, Tahlequah Safe Schools Coordinator Val Dobbins manned the prize table.
“This is the second year for Tahlequah to participate in Walk to School Day,” said Dobbins. “We’ve done this in collaboration with Tahlequah Public Schools, the city, and the Cherokee Nation/Healthy Nation program provided all the incentive materials, as well as the signs. Some of the signs are permanent, and will help direct traffic so kids will be safe when walking to school.”
Dobbins said her organization has written a proposal for a Safe Routes to School grant, and she’s waiting to hear if funding has been approved.
“The grant will include money for infrastructure to build sidewalks and elevated crosswalks, and it has an educational side, too, which provides for materials covering bicycle safety and walking safety,” said Dobbins. “The grant is funded through the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, and we’re very excited.”
Dobbins said she appreciates the community-wide effort to get the event off the ground this year.
“I can’t overstate the efforts of Cherokee Nation/Healthy Nation,” said Dobbins. “They have a great staff, and are so focused on creating healthy environments for everyone.”
Dobbins said prior to the event, city walkability studies were completed to determine the best and safest routes for children to walk.
“We want to find out where the obstacles are and see how we can alleviate them,” said Dobbins. “We also asked our third- and fourth-grade teachers to survey their students, to find out how many kids already walk to school. We’ll do it again after this event, to see if the number increases. It’s all about fitness and health.”
According to information provided by Cherokee Nation/Healthy Nation, in 1969, 89 percent of students in grades kindergarten through eighth grade who lived within one mile of school usually walked or biked to school. By 2009, only 35 percent of students did so even once a week.
Changes in school size and location have affected children’s ability to walk to bicycle to school. Over the past few decades, many districts have moved away from smaller, centrally-located schools and have build schools on the edges of communities, where land costs are lower and acreage is more available.
According to Lauren Marchetti, director of the National Center for Safe Routes to School, Walk to School Day promotes a sense of community.
“Walk to School Day continues to inspire community-grown events that celebrate health, safety and a sense of community,” said Marchetti in a press release. “Often, this one day event becomes a catalyst to larger commitments and permanent improvements that make walking and bicycling to school safer transportation options year round.”
Dobbins said that despite the newness of the annual event, it continues to gain popularity.
“We had quite a few participants last year,” said Dobbins. “This year, it seems like we have even more. We hope to see it grow even more by next year.”