Ok, maybe we’re not just a normal school. About 50 percent of our kids bike or walk to school regularly, thanks to years of dedicated ‘safe routes to school’ efforts. In this, we are quite different than most of America’s schools. Although Portland’s been doing some form of bike/walk to school activities since the 1990s when I was cajoling school district officials and principals to put in bike racks1 (See Joyride chapters 16 and 25), the recent surge of activity comes under the national Safe Routes to School program, thanks to Earl Blumenauer, Senator Jim Oberstar from Minnesota, and a pint-sized organizing dynamo named Deb Hubsmith from Marin Country, CA.
Safe Routes takes a five ‘E’ approach: engineering (physical infrastructure improvements to help make bicycling and walking safer); education (bicycle and pedestrian safety courses); encouragement (events and activities); enforcement (of laws intended to slow motorists around schools and get them to yield to pedestrians); and evaluation (to determine the success of the effort.) Five years after we started, we are truly a model of active transportation.
Complementing our focus on fitness is an equally strong healthy food fetish. The Garden of Wonders is our base for science education, and the Scratch Kitchen provides locally grown (some from our garden), freshly prepared meals. Sit with us at lunch and you’ll see kids waiting in line for beet and arugula pizza, munching on cauliflower, voluntarily heaping their plates with freshly harvested romaine lettuce.
Is it any wonder the Abernethy kids are such good learners? No empty carbs and sodas for these little bodies. Thankfully, others have taken notice, with grant-funded Abernethy Chef Nicole visiting the White House as part of Michelle Obama’s focus on health and fitness.
The local ingredients? A supportive Principal, Tammy Barron, no fitness buff herself but totally supportive. It’s easy to support the parents’ efforts, she explains, because “Fit, healthy kids learn better.” Our Vice-Principal Tom Goodman is equally as important; he’s the PE instructor. Obviously, he gets it, with no convincing necessary. Essential: parent leaders. For five years, we’ve been biking our kids to school and melting away fears by modeling active transportation. The variety of bikes, trail-a-bikes, trailers, back and front-mounting kid seats, long and human cargo bikes every morning is astonishing.
The coup de grace: the Tour de Ladd, our heaven-on-earth bike-a-thon fundraiser for which kids ride laps on car-free streets. Not only does the whole school participate, but the community comes out in droves to support the kids. The month leading up to the event sees upward peer pressure, with kids begging their parents to bike with them, help them learn to ride or lose the training wheels, or upgrade their helmet. (We offer low-cost helmets thanks to a donation from Legacy Emmanuel Hospital.)
The City of Portland did their part, adding about 20 bike racks and funding education and encouragement activities not unlike the in-school programs in Europe. What a departure from the Principal to whom I offered free bike racks, back when I was Portland Bike Coordinator. He said, “I am not willing to take responsibility for kids getting hit on their bikes or bikes getting stolen.”
“Why would you be responsible?” I retorted. “Are you responsible for kids who are injured in a car crash or who not strapped into a car seat?”
He wouldn’t even accept free bike racks, because that would imply he was endorsing bicycle riding, which he deemed unsafe. His attitude back then mirrored statements of both parents and administrators. And now, less than a generation later, that very same school is a model of healthy, active transportation, with traffic at record lows and safety at record highs.
It’s one thing, being a professional transportation leader, quite another being a parent seeing my kids embrace squash, beets, kale and radishes. As we create a healthy environment for our community, we move one step further into a future in which kids think bicycling, walking, recycling, waste reduction, and growing and eating healthy food is simply a part of life. For that, I am most grateful.