Walk-to-school program makes huge strides

Karen Swisher puts inline skates on her son, Jackson Swisher, 8, while his brother, Zachary, 4, watches. The three were preparing to run/inline skate to Dale Mabry Elementary School recently.

CARRIE PRATT | Times

Karen Swisher puts inline skates on her son, Jackson Swisher, 8, while his brother, Zachary, 4, watches. The three were preparing to run/inline skate to Dale Mabry Elementary School recently.

SUNSET PARK — On his front steps, he pulls on inline skates before sunrise and takes off down the street.

Eight-year-old Jackson Swisher glides past houses and fences laced with scented jasmine. Dogs on leashes turn to watch. Jackson hops. He spins. He stops at intersections to wait for his mother, who runs behind him with 4-year-old Zachary in a stroller.

"Some people are shocked when I tell them what we do," said Karen Swisher.

Three days a week they run, bike or skate 2 miles to Dale Mabry Elementary, then add a couple of laps around the school's track. After a snack, Jackson heads to class and his mom runs home.

Their trek started with a walk-to-school initiative, an effort to get kids active and reduce traffic snarls at schools around the world. In 1969, 40 percent of students walked or biked to school. By 2001, just 13 percent did, according to a 2007 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

International Walk to School Day started in 2006 and encouraged students to walk at about 5,000 schools in every state, including Mabry. Concerned about rising obesity rates, Marcy Baker, a pediatrician and Mabry parent, organized the school's first event. Nearly half the students walked that day. Since then the school started Walking Wednesdays once a month. Nearby Mitchell and Roosevelt elementary schools also added the once-a-month walk.

"Parents pair up with neighbors, some come miles to school and others park several blocks away and walk," said Sherri Frick, assistant principal at Roosevelt.

But on other days, more parents drop their kids off at school, saving time on their way to work. With more cars on surrounding roads, it becomes more hazardous for kids to walk. As much as 25 percent of morning rush hour traffic is to schools, according to the National Highway Transportation Administration.

At many neighborhood schools where most students live within a 2-mile radius, buses aren't provided.

Walk, bike, run or hike — school wellness committees hope to encourage these options.

At Mabry, students are treated to a fresh fruit or vegetable, such as edamame, kiwi and pomegranate.

Jackson likes the kiwi. He also liked showing off his medal at school in February after he ran the Gasparilla 5K in 26 minutes.

Getting out of a car works for some parents, too. Swisher gets her workout in while spending one-on-one time with Jackson.

"Cardio doesn't have to be done at the gym while your kids are in the day care," she said. "If I thought I could only work out while my kids were babysat in some way, it would never happen."

Elisabeth Dyer can be reached at edyer@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3321.

Walk-to-school program makes huge strides 04/17/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 17, 2008 4:31am]

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