Tell anyone over fifty that October fifth is International Walk to School Day, the highlight of an entire month devoted to the concept, and you'll likely get back a blank stare, furrowed brow, or outright laughter. "Nonsense," they'll tsk-tsk, "In my day, we walked ten miles, uphill, both ways, in the snow!" Tall-tales aside, as early as five or six, most of us kissed mom, grabbed a lunch box, and trotted off, for what experts considered a routine developmental milestone. I started walking to school in first grade (sparing my older brother embarrassment by lagging a half-block behind); it's no coincidence that the woman who greeted me everyday, Mrs. Davis, was the first teacher who asked me to believe in myself.
How did an entire generation of grade schoolers wind-up fat, lazy and bored, lashed to the backseat of a car? Current explanations for why urban kids no longer walk or bike to school range from increasingly distracted drivers, to inadequate pedestrian and bicycle friendly infrastructure, to drug or gang fueled violence, to the ultimate deal breakers, pedophilia and abduction.
While far too many disadvantaged neighborhoods are indeed dangerous for children (and adults), the vast majority of American cities are actually quite safe. Lenore Skenazy, fellow HuffPo-blogger and author of Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children Without Going Nuts with Worry, implores overprotective parents to get a grip. Forget the media hype: today's crime rate is actually the lowest it's been in decades. The risk of a kid getting abducted, raped or shot on the ten- or fifteen-minute walk to school in a stable neighborhood is about as likely as getting hit by a meteor.
While the possibility of getting hit by a car trumps stranger danger by a mile (strangers kidnap about 115 children each year, whereas 250,000 children are injured in auto accidents), the real threat is virtually infinitesimal. Turns out, harried parents navigating the "drop-off" and "pickup" mayhem are to blame for 50 percent of all car accidents involving children near schools. Arguably, fewer parents driving kids would translate into fewer parents hitting kids. Of course, that would mean that more parents would need to teach their kids how to unplug, zone-in and obey traffic signals, hardly an unreasonable lesson. And, with all that extra oxygen around schools, our munchkins would stand a much better chance of staying alert.
If we could simply overcome our irrational fears, children would scamper down the street in droves, just like good ol' days, right? The sad truth is that even the fittest, bravest or most conscientious kids (empowered by environmentally savvy, risk-tolerant parents) cannot realistically walk to school if they don't attend the school in their neighborhood.
Here in Chicago, like most cities, middle-class families overwhelmingly reject their neighborhood school in favor of reputable magnet schools outside their catchment zone. However, the most desirable magnets admit students by lottery or testing, and demand far outstrips supply. Consequently, the city's entire five-year-old population is locked in a frenzied scramble for a few hundred spots, many of which are already gobbled up by sibling preferences. Just how fierce is the competition? It's statistically harder to get your kindergartener into one of Chicago's top public magnet schools than it is to get your high school senior into Harvard. For the lucky ones, hours each day locked in rush-hour traffic seems like a small price to pay for a golden ticket.
Frustrated by the totally insane public/private school gauntlet, my girlfriend and I ventured inside Nettelhorst, our neighborhood's underutilized and struggling public elementary school to see just how terrible the place was. The new principal, Susan Kurland, asked what it would take for us to enroll our children. Stunned by her candor, we went home, stuck our toddlers in front of Dora the Explorer, cracked open a bottle of wine, and started to dream big. We returned the next day armed with an extensive wish list; Susan read it, and said "Well, let's get started, girls! It's going to be a busy year..."
Together, we galvanized neighborhood parents and then organized an entire community to take a leap of faith, transforming a challenged urban school into one of Chicago's best, virtually overnight. Take a virtual tour; promise, it'll knock your socks off.
My group of parent reformers didn't wait for some fancy, new, educational initiative to fall from the sky. Here's the secret: you already have the power to create change in your community from the ground up. Yes, fixing what's broken requires work, and a good blueprint certainly helps, but our crowd wasn't a bunch of nuclear physicists building a reactor. This is elementary school, people.
So, this October, by all means, lobby your representatives for more sidewalks, stop signs, crossing guards, and bicycle lanes. And on the fifth, ditch the car, inflate balloons, paint signs, and make the momentous trek to school, with a "walking school bus" escorted by police or parent volunteers if that's what it takes. Better still, gather up some friends, march right into your neighborhood school, and ask the principal what you can do to help.
Public schools belong to the public, and that's all of us. Education reform will take leadership from the top, but ultimately it's our collective responsibility to wrap our arms around our schools, and make them the heart of our communities. If we can't do that, no amount of get-off-your-butt/get-on-your-sneakers cheerleading will make much of a dent. If we hope to reform education, it's only going to happen neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block, one school at a time.