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What kind of school bus doesn’t need gas or batteries?

Godfrey-Lee — A new mode of transportation, established this year to save the district some money, is also having a positive effect on students and the staff tasked with their safety. 

The new “walking” school bus program at Godfrey-Lee replaces the traditional gas-powered school bus with two district staff members who walk the bus routes and pick up or drop off students at their “bus stop” as they go. It serves as a natural extension of the “safe routes to school” program that the district established with the Wyoming Police Department several years ago, according to Scott Bergman, director of operations, transportation and food service.

“We decided to eliminate our busing due to COVID-19,” said Bergman, “so we just wanted to provide a safe way for our students to get to and from school and give parents the peace of mind knowing that school employees were supervising their children on the way.”

Sandra Garcia, right, and Yolanda Guzman keep their walking school bus safety garb in lockers at the Early Childhood Center while they serve as playground parapros there

Bergman said the district made some layoffs, including bus drivers, earlier this year when the novel coronavirus pandemic was threatening school budgets in a big way. And even though the state’s financial picture has improved since then, they decided to keep the walking school bus in the plan for this year.

Given the small geographic size of Godfrey-Lee — about one square mile — sticking to the original plan made sense, Bergman said. The longest walking bus route, on the western end of the district, is about nine-tenths of a mile long. The program is offered district-wide and each route is staffed by two playground parapros who attended crossing-guard training from the city of Wyoming. 

“I see a lot of pluses with it,” said Bergman. “Children are getting exercise, and they’re definitely awake by the time they get to school. We’re teaching them basic pedestrian safety. It also reduces the traffic and the congestion around our schools, which has really been a Godsend as we’ve had a lot of issues with congestion in the last few years.”

Playground parapros Sandra Garcia and Yolanda Guzman are responsible for one of the walking school bus routes to and from the Early Childhood Center this year. Clad in their reflective safety vests and holding large stop signs, Guzman leads the line of children while Garcia takes up the rear, making sure no stragglers get left behind. 

Both said the most valuable part of their role — other than student safety — has been building positive relationships with both the students and their parents. 

Godfrey-Lee’s new walking school bus program helps kids get to know their neighborhood as they walk to and from school

 “You get more personal with the kids, more one-on-one, when you’re walking to school with them,” said Garcia, who has been working in the schools for about four years. “The parents and neighbors feel more comfortable with you walking their streets daily, and the kids feel like they can do things on their own, too. I appreciate that (parents) trust me, because those are their babies.”

Garcia, a Godfrey-Lee parent and 18-year resident, said both she and Guzman feel that it’s important to set an example for what it’s like to be a good neighbor. 

We are some of the first adults they see in the mornings,” said Garcia. “We set the tone for them. Because if you’re positive, with a smile on your face, they feel more comfortable that they’re going to have a good day.”

In Guzman’s case, the learning has been reciprocal. A native Spanish speaker, she spends a good portion of the walk to and from school in conversation with a pair of siblings who want to learn how to speak Spanish better. The kids, in turn, speak English back to Guzman to help with her basic understanding of English.

“I feel very proud that they come to me and I am able to help them be bilingual — by knowing two languages they can maybe have a better job in the future,” said Guzman, who has lived in the neighborhood for 15 years. “I would like to help more, because I love everything about this school, but I learn a lot from the students — they are our future and this is what I can do.”

The district plans to keep its school buses to use again, in the future, for daytime field trips and sports transportation once coronavirus restrictions have been lifted. However, Bergman said the walking school bus is likely here to stay due to the positive response they’ve already seen. He also said the city of Wyoming does a good job of clearing main sidewalks when it snows and isn’t too worried about inclement weather. 

“I think it’s a very positive development for our school district, to have something that serves the needs of our community and something that encourages (students) to get outside,” he said. “It’s been pretty amazing how people, especially our playground parapros, have pulled together to make this happen.”

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Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell is a reporter and copy editor, covering Cedar Springs, Godfrey-Lee, Grandville and Lowell. She is an award-winning journalist who got her start as the education reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune. A Calvin University graduate, she later returned to her alma mater to help manage its national writing festival and edit and write for enrollment communications. Beth has also written for The Grand Rapids Press, Fox 17 and several West Michigan businesses and nonprofits. She is fascinated by the nuances of language, loves to travel and has strong feelings about the Oxford comma. Read Beth's full bio or email Beth.

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