Reimagining the school bus

In our increasingly individualistic society, sometimes we miss seeing the simple solutions to community issues. A neighborhood in Madison, WI, had this problem: A significant number of students weren’t showing up for school. Rachel Deterding, a school resource coordinator at Lake View Elementary, noticed that many of them lived in the same apartment building.

The apartment building sat just within the area around the school where school buses didn’t pick up kids. Many of the parents were “recent immigrants who are getting themselves settled in our country, in families who are just living with a very tight monthly budget, and they don’t have money for cars, or other resources to get kids to school,” says Deterding.

Why didn’t the kids just walk? Deterding says parents were nervous about their safety, partly because they didn’t see other kids walking. In the last fifty years, parents have increasingly dropped their kids off at school by car. In 1969, five out of every 10 kids walked to school. In 2021, only 1 in 10 walked to school.

Deterding couldn’t order a bus, so she organized a “walking school bus.” It was an idea she had heard about from other communities. Neighbors, whether parents or not, get together and pick up children as they walk along the route to school each day. These buses, organized by Deterding, started collecting 25 kids and now they collect 50-70 each day.

Attendance climbed three percent in her elementary school. “That may seem like a small number, but to us, that’s a win,” she says. “We are making progress, slow and steady.” And the walking bus has done even more. 

Busy parents take turns “driving” the bus, so they don’t have to take time everyday to drop kids at school. And neighbors get to meet and chat as they walk. “It’s a simple but wonderful way to build community,” says Deterding. 

In the book The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization, social psychologist Peter T. Coleman of Columbia University cites research showing that moving in sync with other people enhances cooperation and the ability to achieve shared goals, in addition to increasing our compassion and willingness to help others.

If you want to start a walking school bus where you live, check out this great guide

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