By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Every Wednesday in October and May, the wheels on the bus are replaced by sneakers on the feet in the neighborhood surrounding Hillside Elementary School, thanks to the long-standing “walking school bus” tradition there.
The event provides kids with a fun change in routine and an important opportunity to learn safety precautions for sharing the road with cars. Together with parent and staff chaperones from school, the students gather to hoof it to class.
“Our neighborhood is very walkable,” said coordinator Steve Swinton, a PTO member and father of two Hillside students, Will and Jack, ages 7 and 9. He took over managing the event three years ago from another parent whose children moved on to middle school.
After gathering permission slips from interested students and parent volunteers, Swinton plans routes from house to house, just like any good bus driver would. He and his wife each “drive” a bus, as do other parents and Hillside librarian Debbie Ubriaco.
This year, more than 20 kids and eight parents signed up for the October session.
Swinton noted that it’s especially important to teach the children safety on foot while they’re young enough to absorb the information.
“We like doing it here at Hillside because a lot of the kids in our neighborhood will have to walk to middle school,” he said. The district doesn’t provide buses for kids who live within a close distance of the middle school, particularly if they can avoid crossing busy thoroughfares like Balltown Road and Route 7.
“A lot of spots in our neighborhood, they don’t have sidewalks,” Swinton said. “If kids are going to be walking to middle school or a friend’s house, we teach them the proper way to cross the street, which side of the road to walk on, all that stuff.”
Part of the fun of the twice-annual event is that it’s not just a walk to school; it’s a welcome break from the routine.
“They get to meet up with a lot of their friends,” Swinton said. “You get out in the early morning air, get some fresh air and some exercise.”
Ubriaco, the school librarian, doesn’t live in the neighborhood, but thinks the program is important enough to make a special trip for.
“Studies show walking before school brings you to school more alert and ready to learn,” she said. So she commutes to Hillside early each Wednesday in October and May from her home in Burnt Hills to “drive” her group of 10 to 12 kids to school.
She said in addition to being a positive experience for the students, it’s great for her relationships at the school, too. She has participated since the introduction of the program, about seven years ago.
“I’ve gotten to know a lot of students and families really well, which is great,” she said. Ubriaco added that since she isn’t a classroom teacher, getting to know students can be a challenge, and the walk helps with that.
It’s built friendships between the children, too. She said that unlike when she was growing up, many children don’t play unsupervised with the neighbors.
“Every year, our first day of walking, I introduce the kids to each other,” she said. “A lot of them don’t know each other even though they live down the street.”
By May, she said, they need no introduction. “When we come back in the spring they’re all excited to see each other,” she said. “I find out they’ve been playing together since they were first introduced.
“It’s multi-age, so I have kindergarten through fifth grade, and [the older kids] kind of take the little ones under their wings,” she added.
Swinton said even though the Northeast can surprise its residents with some pretty unusual weather in October, the walkers are undeterred. “We don’t care,” he said proudly. “We’re tough, so it’s rain or shine.”