PORTLAND – A new Walking School Bus program is starting up this spring at two Portland elementary schools, with adult volunteers shepherding up to 10 students to school along designated walking routes.

“I think it’s great. It’s really important for kids, not only for the health reasons, but it’s just a great way to start the day,” said Cheryl Denis, who plans to sign up her two daughters, who attend Lyseth Elementary School. “Kids have so much screen time now, and with this they get fresh air, they get outside. There are games they can play as they walk, like scavenger hunts. It’s great.”

Denis, who is the president of Lyseth’s parent-teacher association, said she and her husband, Jay, likely will volunteer to lead groups of young walkers, too.

The program, a joint project between the district and an existing state-federal Safe Routes to School program, will launch in April at Reiche and East End community schools, according to program coordinator Betsy Critchfield. It will expand to Lyseth and Riverton elementary schools in the fall.

Critchfield, 25, said she hopes to attract enough volunteers and interested families to expand the program throughout the city. The district is seeking volunteers through portlandwalkingschoolbus.org.

“We really do have the potential to create a much more walkable city,” Critchfield said.

School buses generally only pick up students who live more than a mile from a school. This program is meant to serve neighborhoods within a mile.

Group leaders go through a background check and receive an hour of training, officials said.

Funds for the $30,000 project come from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Safe Routes to School program. Critchfield said she is seeking grant money to continue the project beyond launch, and hopes schools eventually will coordinate their own programs.

Since 1969, the number of students walking or biking to school has dropped from about half of all students to fewer than 15 percent, according to DOT statistics. Today, about half of all students are driven to school in private cars.

In Maine, the program builds on almost a decade of encouraging biking and walking to school. The Maine Department of Transportation, along with the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, has helped more than 200 Maine schools on various Safe Routes to School projects, officials said.

In recent years Portland put up signs to identify safe walking and biking routes to schools, Critchfield said. More of the blue and yellow signs, currently in storage, may be used for the Walking School Bus program once the routes are identified.

Critchfield and others said there’s usually a very busy street with no crossing guard or stoplights that prevents parents from letting their kids bike or walk to school alone.

At East End Community School, that street is Washington Avenue, said Caity Hager, the president of the PTA. She said there are a lot of Munjoy Hill walkers, but few from the Bayside neighborhood. Plus, she thinks the program will get kids used to the idea of walking around safely before they reach middle school.

“It’s like the baby step in between,” said Hager.

Her partner’s daughter, third-grader Shai Knight, currently rides the bus or rides her bike with her dad in nice weather but is excited about walking to school every day.

“She loves being outside,” Hager said.

In addition to getting exercise, Critchfield and others say, the young walkers will get a chance to bond with each other and an older role model outside of their home or school.

Critchfield said there are thousands of Walking School Bus programs nationwide, most running 12 weeks in the fall and 12 weeks in the spring.

In Portland, navigating snow-choked sidewalks, freezing temperatures and stormy weather could mean the program is suspended during the winter months, Critchfield said. For now, she’s taking a wait-and-see approach.

“We have to be realistic,” she said. 

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

ngallagher@pressherald.com