Lessons from walking to school

Walking to school is a childhood routine that creates indelible memories. Decades later, many former walkers still remember vivid details of their daily trek back and forth: the red door accenting a small white house, the friendly collie bounding across a fenced yard, the cheerful woman waving from her garden on warm days. With fondness they also recall seasonal changes - shuffling through leaves in autumn, crunching over snow in winter, spotting the first crocuses in spring.

But in the past quarter-century, a combination of court-ordered busing and the consolidation of neighborhood schools has created a generation of students whose memories center around riding rather than walking. Even the youngest children have become pint-sized commuters as fleets of school buses lumber through cities and suburbs, transporting students to classrooms far from home.

Now Mayor Thomas Menino of Boston wants to reverse that trend. Last week he unveiled a plan to build five "walk-to" schools. Within six years, he vows, virtually all children in the city will live within walking distance of neighborhood schools, although parents will still be able to choose their schools.

Eventually, the move could save $17 million in busing costs. That money, Menino says, would be poured into education. He promises "quality" in all schools.

Not surprisingly, the mayor's plan has sparked controversy. Opponents fear that richer neighborhoods will get better schools and more support, thus undoing decades of efforts to desegregate classrooms and equalize education.

Yet his pledge comes as welcome news to those who think that the return of neighborhood schools will strengthen communities and families, enabling more parents to attend parent-teacher conferences and volunteer. Studies show that one of the greatest predictors of a student's success is parental involvement in school.

More than ever, many neighborhoods serve as little more than bedroom communities, the place where children and working parents gather at the end of a long day to eat and sleep before leaving again in the morning. No wonder "community" has become a cherished ideal, a word symbolizing Americans' fondest hopes for a sense of connection and belonging. No wonder religious leaders speak of "communities of faith" and civic leaders urge "community involvement."

It will take more than the rebirth of neighborhood schools to rebuild a fragile sense of community. "Walk-to" schools will not be possible in all areas. School buses remain essential for many students, offering convenience, efficiency, and safety. Parental concerns about children's safety as they walk will, in fact, be a key issue to address.

In addition, many working parents don't have the time or flexibility to follow the lead of a mother on our suburban street, a professor, who walks her two elementary-school children to a neighborhood school nine blocks away, pushing her preschooler in a stroller. The 15-minute walk, she says, offers time for conversation and closeness.

Still, walking-distance schools represent a promising new-old idea. At a time when health specialists are despairing over the rise in childhood obesity, and when recess is disappearing in some schools, the prospect of fresh air and exercise twice a day sounds promising. In the process of wearing out a little shoe leather, students will also discover a different kind of education and enrichment. Not all classrooms are indoors.

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