ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The last day of school was two days ago, and already Dave Petrov is nostalgic about the year that was.
“I enjoyed it,” he said. “I’d be happy to do it again. I’d be honored, really.”
He misses rising early in the morning, never late, always ready to face the chill and the children and the traffic on his walk to Emerson Elementary School.
But Petrov is not a kid, though he’s as unabashedly enthusiastic as one. He’s not a student – hasn’t been one in, shall we say, a few years.
He’s one of the volunteers who this year served on the inaugural rollout of Emerson’s Walking School Bus, a nationwide program that provides children with adult chaperons to walk them to school along a set route each morning in much the same way a school bus would drive them to school.
Because most Emerson students do not live more than a mile from the school, buses are not provided.
But it’s what that mile encompasses that makes the Walking School Bus ideal for Emerson. The Southeast Albuquerque school is in the hardscrabble neighborhoods of the International District and Trumbull, where children have to navigate pockets of blight and busy pedestrian-unfriendly streets such as Louisiana and Zuni.
Special education teacher Anna Kay, who has been at Emerson for two years, said she was inspired to introduce the Walking School Bus after learning how other schools with the program – including Manzano Mesa, Lavaland and Kirtland elementaries in Albuquerque – reported improvements in student safety, morale, truancy and tardiness rates and a decrease in bullying.
“So I volunteered and said, ‘Yeah, I can help get this off he ground at my school,’ ” Kay said.
The program is often parent-driven at other schools. Although some Emerson parents appeared interested, Kay said, she found it hard to attract enough of them willing or able to escort the kids every morning.
“Some parents are working several jobs, or background checks are an issue,” she said. “So I asked some teachers, some friends and my dad to volunteer.”
Her dad is Dave Petrov.
“She told me about the program, and I said, ‘Hey, I’d be happy to help these kids,’ ” said Petrov, a retired city employee who works part time at a local gym.
At least two volunteers, who must pass a background check, are required to cover both of the school’s two routes – one that starts at Mesilla and Bell and one that begins at Louisiana and Kathryn.
Before heading out to their routes, volunteers meet at the school by 7 a.m. to collect their walkie-talkies, first-aid kits, attendance logs and a backpack full of bright yellow safety vests that each child and adult is required to wear.
The “buses” get rolling by about 7:25 a.m. picking up children along the way and getting them safely to school by 7:35, just in time for breakfast and ready for the school day, which begins at 7:55 a.m.
Kay, who volunteers on a route four or five times a week, estimates that about 12 to 16 students travel on the Louisiana route, while about six to 10 students take the Mesilla route. Surveys sent home at the end of this school year may determine whether routes need to be adjusted or increased next year, she said.
For now, she said, the program has been a success.
“It’s been wonderful,” she said. “I have observed a lot of these kids who are really shy and quiet have started to open up with the adults they walk with. They talk about school and what they’re learning. They talk about their lives, who they are. It helps me feel a part of their community. It’s a little extra time commitment, but for me it’s the best way to start my mornings. It’s kind of what teachers are all about – making that connection with kids.”
It’s also what humanity is all about, her dad added.
“Over the course of a year, you get to be buddies,” Petrov said. “It’s interesting to hear about their lives at home, their lives at school, the issues they are having. You become a friend, and they become someone meaningful in your life. It’s people, man. It’s interpersonal relationships. And it’s fun.”
He can’t wait for next year.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.