Youth Voice Builds Stronger Bike & Pedestrian Culture: Spotlight on Sanford

June 25, 2014 at 8:02 am Leave a comment

Written for Maine Cyclist and the Maine Safe Routes to School Program Newsletter.

Thanks to training from Safe Routes to School (SRTS) organizations in the United States and Canada, the Maine SRTS Program has been experimenting with authentic youth engagement and leadership in our walk and bike to school work.  Students provide great energy – which is a tremendous boost to interested-but-maxed-out adults in the community – and students also offer their own walk and bike experiences and perspectives.  As one trainer in youth engagement expressed, “What could be more important than including the very population we wish to serve (students) in our local efforts and decision making?”  Early research has shown that when students are leading the charge, school and community culture shift is easier to make happen and persists longer.

Examples of youth engagement in walk and bike efforts from the past few years include Houlton students who became part of a Student Safety Patrol, York elementary students who created a bicycle safety video, and Freeport middle and high school students who presented walk and bike safety concerns to their town council (which led to great community follow-up).  More recently, the Maine SRTS Program assisted with youth engagement in school-wide walk and bike encouragement led by 3rd, 4th and 5th graders at East End and Lyseth Elementary Schools in Portland (see associated article) and walk and bike audits led by 7th and 8th graders at Sanford Junior High.

Spotlight on Sanford

Jr. High Walk & Bike Audit PostersAt Sanford Junior High, 12 students from Jessica Marass’ 7th and 8th grade classes were responsible for assessing the walkability and bikeability of the Sanford/Springvale community – as part of a larger educational excursion called “We Built This City!”

Jim Tasse and Sarah Cushman of the Maine Bicycle & Pedestrian Safety Education and Safe Routes to School Programs first met with the students to discuss what makes a community feel liveable and trained them in the process of conducting walkability and bikeability audits.  The students in Marass’ classes brought great experience to their walk and bike assessment work – as their primary modes of transportation are walking or riding their bikes to school and around town.  Many of the students have struggled with social and emotional challenges that make a typical school day difficult to navigate.  Right from the start the students made the process their own, creating individualized walk and bike audit forms after review of several national and state road and trail examples.

Students do ABC quick check before audit In addition to walking around Sanford and Springvale, the students capitalized on the school’s Bike Club fleet.  Through a partnership with the Nasson Community Bike Center (and with support from a Maine Safe Routes to School Mini-grant this spring) the school uses a handful of bikes for the Bike Club, safety training, and reward rides for students.  An instructor with the Maine Bicycle & Pedestrian Safety Education Program presented to the students in May and one parent recently reported, “Our son won’t get on his bike without doing the ABC Quick check, and he made us help him adjust his helmet because he informed us he now knew the best way to wear it!”

Students bike to do auditMarass’ students clearly enjoyed the walk and bike audit process – “We got to be outside, doing something that really means something to me,” shared one student.  Another student who loves to bike and skate reported, “My favorite part was helping, because any way I can make the way we get around better, is awesome.”  Still another said, “This is something we can really use!”

After gathering all their information, the students created detailed maps and posters to visually demonstrate the level of safety for walking and biking in the areas surrounding the school. Leading up to the community-wide presentations day (held during the day and evening), many of the students were very nervous and felt they might not be able to participate.  Marass and Dan Spencer, the classroom’s education technician, helped the students practice and review and assured them that they would only have to share as much as they felt comfortable.  For example, the students learned skills for politely letting someone know who else they could ask if one of them felt they were ‘freezing up’.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESOne student was especially worried – but because he was so passionate about the topic, turned out to be a star.  It was clear he inspired the adults he spoke to about the project and in the process he learned that stepping outside his comfort zone could be rewarding and reinforcing. A number of city officials (including the city planner) attended the presentations; and one official invited the students to a scheduled meeting where he will be advocating for precisely one of the improvements the students had suggested!  Several of the students then went on to also present their work at a city-wide Mobility Forum the next week.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES “Seeing our kids work together, and witness themselves succeed as a group, makes it all worth it!  They were incredibly proud of themselves, and for these students, that is priceless. Much better than a high test score or grade!  For students often hiding in the shadows, they got to see how much they could really shine.” reported Dan Spencer, the classroom’s education technician.

One student shared sentiments at the end of the project that were expressed by many of the others, “I helped with bikability and walkability because I love to walk. I was happy when I found out I was doing this, because I actually got to put my own input into this project. My favorite part was walking, because it was so nice to get out of the school building and contribute to this community.”  We look forward to hearing more about how these great Sanford youth voices build the case for community bicycle and pedestrian improvements!

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