By the time my kids reached fourth or fifth grade, they started to ask if they could travel to school on their own. It’s one of those painful moments that parents have to face where we know all the dangers… all the things that could go wrong… and yet we realize that our kids need to start getting some “out of the nest” experiences to help prepare them for adulthood. I’ll admit, the first few times they took off on their own, I trailed behind (out of sight) just to make sure they made it to school OK. But eventually they proved that they knew how to travel the route safely and I was able to relax and even appreciate the fact that they were growing up.
As parents, we just want to know that our kids are safe.
Thankfully, there’s a great program run by the City of Fort Collins, with the assistance of the local bicycle advocacy organization, Bike Fort Collins, called Safe Routes to School that has been put into place to help our kids learn how to stay safe on our city streets. I recently interviewed Dot Dickerson, one of the key people behind the Safe Routes to School program here in Fort Collins. What I learned from her was so exciting that I immediately emailed June and asked if I could write this guest post, because once you learn more about this program, I think you’ll be as excited as I am.
One thing that makes our local Safe Routes program different from others in the state, and even in the nation, is that the instructors include movement as much as possible in the classes. Students aren’t just lectured about safety. They play games that reinforce the rules of the road that they’re learning. And they’re learning things that I wouldn’t think to teach — like where the edge of the road is. (If there are parked cars, then the edge isn’t where the curb is. It’s where the outer edge of those parked cars are. So students learn to reach that edge, stop and make sure the way is clear, and then proceed.)
Another thing that makes our Safe Routes program unique in the nation is its inclusion of all students (every kid in Fort Collins will get this training at least twice during their time in elementary school) and every kind of student (all ages and ability levels — using adaptive equipment and methods when necessary). In fact the City’s Safe Routes to School Coordinator, Nancy Nichols, and Dot Dickerson (from Bike Fort Collins) will be presenting at the Safe Routes to School National Conference in Columbus, Ohio this week. They’re going to talk about the three cornerstones of equity that our local program is built around:
- Saturation — every elementary school is included in the program,
- Empowerment — all ages and abilities are involved, even when that requires some extra creativity (like using a bike “bus” so that an adult can help power or steer the vehicle if a child has physical restrictions that keep them from being able to ride a standard bicycle), and
- Meeting Kids Where They Are — taking the Safe Routes program to places where families are, such as Open Streets on June 5th.
Though the Safe Routes program has been in Fort Collins since 2007, it wasn’t until 2015 that a plan was put in place to make sure every child in the city was receiving Safe Routes training at least twice in their school careers. There’s a basic curriculum for Kindergarten – 2nd grade and more advanced lessons for 3rd – 5th graders. In addition to learning safe behavior around streets, students also learn the basics of bicycle safety including how to fit a helmet and check to make that your bike is in good shape for riding.
Instructors are often met with a wide range of skill levels when it comes to bicycling, from kids who have never been on a bicycle before to those who go on long family rides or ride on BMX courses. So the curriculum has been developed to provide skills training for every level of student. They don’t all end up as bicycling experts, but everyone gets moved along the spectrum so that they know a lot more than when they began.
Although kids are asked to bring their own bikes, the Safe Routes team has extra bicycles on hand for those that need them. And every bike (whether it’s from home or through the program) gets a basic safety check (air pressure, brakes, etc.) by local bike mechanics before anyone pedals anywhere.
In addition to learning the basics of how to ride a bike, the instructors also cover important skills like checking over your shoulder for oncoming traffic (especially before making a turn), avoiding obstacles on the road without putting yourself into danger, and coming to a quick stop without getting tossed off your bike.
The program is funded year to year through grants and some City funding. Volunteers are welcomed and required not only to go through a two class training program, but also to be vetted through the school district. Middle schools are included as interest and budget allows.
Whether our kids grow up using a bicycle for transportation, or they only share the road with cyclists as they drive their car, knowing and understanding the rules of the road could just save someone’s life. Fort Collins is at the cutting edge of providing bicycle safety information to our kids. Given that walking and bicycling are common means for kids to get around to parks, school, and friends’ houses, making sure that they understand how to use the road safely is an important part of their education.