ELLSWORTH — Drivers can expect to see a new sort of school bus moving along streets in the city’s downtown later this spring.
It won’t be yellow, it won’t use any fossil fuel — and it won’t have any wheels, either.
It’s called a walking school bus, and it’s a program born out of a partnership between the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Maine Department of Transportation and the Bicycle Coalition of Maine.
Students led by trained adult volunteers form walking school buses to make the daily journey to school on foot.
Ellsworth Elementary Middle School recently received a $5,000 grant to start a Walking School Bus program for city students, and the goal is to have the program up and running — or rather, walking — after April vacation.
A public forum on the new program was held Tuesday night at the school and drew 20 citizens — ranging from parents to city and school officials to members of other local organizations who wanted to learn more about it.
Officials with the state-level program said it gives kids exercise, teaches them about pedestrian safety and helps reduce traffic. They also touted a larger, though less tangible, aspect — that of creating community spirit.
“There’s something about this crew of kids walking through town with a couple of adults that draws peoples’ eyes and warms their hearts,” said Sarah Cushman, a consultant with the program who also volunteers with a walking school bus route in Portland.
Cushman and Darcy Whittemore, who also works with the program at the state level, said volunteers are given training and background checks before serving as “bus drivers.” They follow certain routes, just like a regular bus would, within a 1-mile radius of the school.
Like a real bus, the walking bus also has set “stops,” Cushman said, and will also wait for up to a minute if a student is late. She said the Portland program uses a wind chill chart to determine if it is too cold for students to walk to school.
The program is voluntary, but officials hope to get as many students as possible taking part in the program.
Students sign up to participate in advance so that officials know how to structure the routes. Routes are checked before they are used to make sure they are safe.
The funding the school receives helps cover the cost of a stipend for the local program coordinator, as well as the training of volunteers and materials such as safety vests, signage and brochures about the project.
Dave Norwood, the K-4 physical education teacher at EEMS, will serve as the coordinator in Ellsworth.
Anyone interested in finding out more about the program, or learning how to serve as a volunteer bus driver, should contact Norwood by email ([email protected]) or by calling the school at 667-6241.
Volunteers do not have to be parents of school children. In fact, Cushman said in Portland that 85 percent of volunteers do not have children in school.