Cars began rolling into the Fox Wood Park parking lot at 9 a.m. sharp. Moms pulled up to the curb and the doors flew open, little children emerging with backpacks and lunch boxes.
Guiga Vieira and her kids, 7-year-old Lucas and 5-year-old Isabela, greeted them all as they arrived to walk to Trinity Elementary School together. In just a month, the walking school bus that Vieira started up has grown from a handful of participants to more than 40.
"Every week, we get two or three more families," Vieira said. "Now that they see it's working, the kids want to walk."
Trinity Elementary leaders are thrilled with the community effort to have children walk to campus, which is just three blocks from the park, rather than drive.
"It took cars out of the driveway," principal Kathryn Rushe said. "We weren't able to start school on time, we had so many cars in the car loop. This helps. It definitely helps."
Vieira, who serves on the school's advisory committee and PTO, knew the car loop problems well. She was brainstorming ideas to help resolve the situation when she saw a television news report about another school that had begun a walking school bus, which essentially is a parent-guided walk to school.
"I always thought, since we all live around here, we should carpool or walk. We live so close," she said.
She sent e-mails throughout the community, talked with friends and put a flier in the school office. The nucleus of the walking group quickly coalesced.
"I thought it was a great idea, so we applied immediately," said Liz Baldyga, whose 5-year-old twins, Bella and Palmer, walk the route daily. "It's great exercise for the kids. They get to talk and socialize. … We've definitely made some good friends (as parents), and that's definitely a bonus."
Sylvia Balile brought her daughter, first-grader Salma, for the first time Monday. Salma said she had seen the kids having fun in the park, and then walking to school, and she wanted to join.
"I was asking my mom if I could do it, then she let me do it," the 6-year-old former car rider said.
"We wanted to try it," her mom said. "We see they are very happy when they walk and pass by."
At 9:15 a.m, Vieira tells all the children to stop playing ball and ring around the rosy and follow the leader. The time has come to pick up school stuff and head out.
One mom takes the lead, followed by a bunch of kids with a mom in the middle and another at the end. Some sing, some hold hands as they leave the park to make the short trip to school.
There are plenty of rules to follow, Isabela Vieira reports: No running. No screaming. No pushing. No fighting. No walking in the grass.
But it's still a good time, Isabela says, because "rule No. 1 is have fun." The big downside, she adds, is "if you want to go potty, there's no potty."
The group marches down the narrow sidewalk along Duck Slough Boulevard, with Palmer Baldyga shouting "Bike!" every time a bicycle approaches. The walkers quickly slide to the left to allow the bicycles to pass, then they refill the sidewalk and continue toward school until Palmer shouts again, "More bikes!"
Ten minutes after starting off, the walking school bus arrives at school. The kids give Vieira high-fives as they filter into campus and make their way to their classrooms.
Salma decides she "pretty much" likes the walking school bus, and says she'll ask her mom to let her keep going — at least on Mondays.
Vieira checks to make sure everyone who started the walk finished it.
She then delivers the names of all the children who will be returning to the park in the afternoon to Rushe's office, so the afternoon walking school bus volunteer moms know who to expect at the 3:50 p.m. bell.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.