Walking School Bus

Come along with Jefferson Elementary School Dean Cathy Porter and her ‘walking school bus’

AnnMarie Hilton

Appleton Post-Crescent
Dean of Students Cathy Porter points out an owl pellet while walking students home after class at Jefferson Elementary School on Thursday, February 9 in Appleton.

APPLETON – If you were to peek along Prospect Avenue between 7:30 and 8 a.m., odds are you would see Cathy Porter walking with Jefferson Elementary School students and maybe even a yellow wagon in tow.

And if you look again after school, you’ll probably see them tracing their steps back home like they did on a recent Thursday, even with snow falling that quickly turned to slush.

One student stayed by Porter’s side for the entire walk, helping her pull the wagon full of backpacks and occasionally holding her hand. The others would sometimes sprint ahead — although never daring into a crosswalk without Porter. She asked them how their days were. They asked her what she ate for lunch.

That particular day, they also stopped to follow up on an observation they made in the morning.

“Remember when we saw that owl pellet this morning?” Porter asked the students as they gathered to hear her explain how you could tell what the owl ate by looking at the pellet.

With just a couple blocks to go, a few of the students split off to head toward their homes. Porter helped them put on their backpacks and pulled a tissue from her pocket for one runny nose that succumbed to the cold.

The walking school bus is one of her tools for staying on top of attendance. She modeled her program after a similar one at East Central Wisconsin Safe Routes to School; the concept is really that of a normal school bus, just walking instead of driving. The route serves students who may be at more risk of missing school.

Porter developed a 1-mile route that she walks each morning and afternoon — except Wednesdays because of scheduling conflicts — along Prospect Avenue from Jefferson to Memorial Drive and back. There are designated stops along the way where she picks up students.

The walking school bus route includes Harbor House, a shelter for people fleeing domestic violence. Jennie Micke, children and youth advocate for Harbor House, helps families at the shelter get their children enrolled at Jefferson.

She sees the work Porter does with the walking school bus positively affects families in two ways: It provides accountability and connection.

Many of the families don’t have consistent transportation, but the walking school bus provides a safe, consistent way to get their students to school. Porter shows up most days a week, meeting families where they are at, quite literally, to remove those logistical barriers.

“It starts off as accountability, but then it becomes about connection. That, to me, is an even stronger motivation for these families,” Micke said.

Porter becomes a familiar face and a point of consistency for these families who are in transition. The walking school bus also gives the students a chance to connect with other students during those walks to and from school each day.

That connection helps the families, and the students feel like they are part of a community.

Every year the walking school bus looks a little different, depending on the students’ needs and Porter’s schedule. When she started in the 2017-18 school year, she did only a morning route. The next year she didn’t do it at all because there didn’t seem to be much of a need.

She’s been back at it this year and last year, though. This year, there are two students who consistently walk with her to school and about five that join her on the journey home after the final bell.

The most students she’s ever had on her route is nine.

For the children, it might feel like just walking to school, but Porter tries to make it fun, imaginative and even supportive.

The route runs along Pierce Park, so sometimes she lets them detour through the grass to burn a little energy. A few weeks ago, she saw a bald eagle when she was walking to pick them up, so she had them keep an eye out for it on the walk back. They do little scavenger hunts and even build snowmen, weather permitting.

Occasionally, a teacher will tell Porter that a student had a hard time in class that day, and she will spend the walk home talking and processing what might have happened with them.

But Porter is just one person, so she can really only do one route. She encouraged families or volunteer groups who are interested to look into developing their own walking school bus routes.

“Ultimately, that’s the purpose of it: To build community and that relationship with everybody,” she said.

Reach AnnMarie Hilton at ahilton@gannett.com or 920-370-8045. Follow her on Twitter at @hilton_annmarie.