Every morning at 8 a.m., Deneen Sweat walks her 5-year-old son and about 30 other kids to Campbell Park Elementary, whether “rain, sleet or storm.”
It’s a 10-minute walk, at most, from Citrus Grove Apartments, but the constant traffic in the area, which is blocks away from Tropicana Field, makes it a major concern for parents.
“For a lot of them, this is their first year of school, and it’s just not safe for them to be walking by themselves at that age,” Sweat said.
Sweat and other volunteers make sure students get to Campbell Park Elementary safely through the Walking School Bus Project, which was started at the end of last school year.
The Tampa Bay Rays, Jabil, All Children’s Hospital and United Way shower the children with perks, ranging from backpacks to Rays’ tickets, but until now one crucial expense hasn’t been covered: the $50 background checks Pinellas County Schools requires of adult volunteers.
Thursday, St. Petersburg City Council members approved spending $2,000 to pay for the background checks.
The money will help turn around schools that are struggling the most, said City Council Chairman Karl Nurse.
“One of the reasons why they struggle is that kids don’t show up, and organized walking to school with some parents reduces absenteeism and reduces tardiness,” Nurse said. “We’re trying to get this started at schools in our poorest neighborhoods.
“Can you imagine asking somebody to volunteer to do something and then also asking them to pay for the privilege of volunteering?”
Many parents simply say no, Sweat said. At Campbell Park, 90 percent of students receive on free or reduced-price lunches, and most live within two miles of the school. About 170 of the 676 students at the school use the program and are divided into groups of 10 to 30. Five adult volunteers make sure they get to school safely.
The need is growing. Every morning, Sweat walks a group of 30 or more students, helps them get breakfast, and, though not required, walks many of them home at 4:15 p.m. and watches them until their parents are able to pick them up. Sometimes, a grandmother, another parent or even Rays mascot Raymond will walk with her. Other times, she’s on her own to corral the students down the busy streets.
“A lot of parents didn’t want to go through the process for fear of being turned down, or didn’t want to pay,” Sweat said. “I’ve walked every day for the whole school year, but if for some reason I can’t be there the kids still need to get to school. It would benefit me if more people were able to fill in.”
The Walking School Bus program has garnered nothing but praise, but the City Council met pushback when it came to paying for the background checks. The police department originally turned down the idea when commissioners first discussed it last month but had a wish list of expenditures such as treadmills and a new garden at a social service agency.
“I sort of used that as a contrast: If walking local children to school in our toughest neighborhoods is not crime prevention, I don’t know how building a garden can be one,” Nurse said. “Frankly, they were so embarrassed that they just said yes.”
The program has proven its worth, Campbell Park Elementary Principal Godfrey Watson said. In 2011, a study by United Way and the Rays Baseball Foundation found that 25 percent of students at Campbell Park missed 20 or more days of school. Now, after a year of Walking School Busses, only about 15 students are tardy on any given day. In the past, there were 50 or more.
“Everybody chips in; there are times when I walk,” Watson said. “Campbell Park is in a difficult area, so the parents often have a lot of apprehension, but the kids are getting to know the neighborhood; we teach them safety skills and they’re building relationships with each other so they want to come to school.”
Mamie Jackson was hired by United Way in July 2012 to grow the program. Campbell Park Elementary is the school of focus for now, but others such as Melrose Elementary in St. Petersburg are also looking to follow suit.
“You can see a definite change in the kids, and there are parents from other areas that even drop their kids off at Walking Bus stops,” Jackson said. “But we need more routes and more involvement.”