A sociology professor at Gonzaga University utilizes the Walking School Bus Program to unify college students and the surrounding neighborhood.
Joe Johnston, assistant professor at the school’s department of sociology and criminology, is originally from Indianapolis but moved to Spokane, Washington, in 2015. At the time, he had never heard about the Walking School Bus (WSB) Program. However, he quickly became a volunteer, once a neighbor suggested he become involved.
The first Safe Routes to School program began in the Bronx in 1997. Within a few years, the program had expanded to several other states. By 2005, Congress formed the federal Safe Routes to School Program. It is now known as Transportation Alternatives.
“As a sociologist, I am always interested in everything about the social world, but particularly ways to get students out into the neighborhood, especially in Spokane, Washington, in ways that they can be useful,” Johnston said. “But also, ways that they can look to community members and be part of that experience.”
Johnston said once he received that initial exposure, he and his partner Abbey Martin, the elementary school youth program manager for the Center of Community Engagement at Gonzaga, incorporated the WSB as a part of the community engagement program at the university and Johnston even incorporated it into his teachings.
The class, Sociology of Education, is an upper-division elective course taught each spring. Johnston said the it covers enriched writing, social justice and community engagement.
“Really, the class is about understanding the causes and consequences of inequalities in our public education system in the United States,” Johnston said.
For the first half of the semester, he said students work on papers that analyze their respective neighborhoods, homes and schooling experiences. He said the students start by understanding educational inequalities and analyzing their own experiences, backgrounds and living conditions.
“Then, the second half is going out on the walking school bus, and then having time to come into the classroom and reflect on those experiences and apply things we have learned in the class so far,” Johnston explained.
After the students walk, he explained that they return to class and compare and contrast their own experiences growing up to the neighborhood they currently live in. He noted there is a good bit of learning through differences and similarities.
“It is very important in our context at Gonzaga University because more than 95 percent of our students don’t come from Spokane, Washington,” Johnston said. “I really think that a course like this and the partnership with the walking school bus can be a great way for students to get know some part of the community, that is part of the city that their university is located within.”
Going forward, Johnston said he hopes to conduct research to look at the program through the eyes of elementary students. However, he said that school administrators, teachers and liaisons have told him that the partnership has increased student attendance and punctuality.
“I have just seen relationships between the youth, and the volunteers really blossom over the time that we spend partnering with the walking school bus,” Johnston explained. “The hope is that this is a way that there really can be authentic relationships that can be built over time. It’s such an intimate thing to start off the day very early in the morning, just taking a walk together. It’s sort of an act of solidarity in some ways, in that both of you, the volunteers and the kids, are walking the same path together, quite literally.”
He said because the walk isn’t structured, the volunteers and students can talk about anything and everything.
“We try to focus a lot on providing an environment where the power differential is as equitable as possible,” Johnston said. “We are recognizing that the kids and the families know so much more about the neighborhood, so we try to provide an environment where they are leading us. They are teaching us about their neighborhood. They are teaching us about their school and their friends and what we should be looking out for as we are walking with them each day.”
Johnston said he hopes that the walking school bus is only one part of a larger goal to infuse more community engagement at Gonzaga University. He said the university started a new program, Opportunity Northeast Initiative, that focuses on deeper ways to encapsulate and strengthen campus-community partnerships with elementary schools, to build a more thriving neighborhood for individuals in Northeast Spokane.
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He said he envisions the WSB program as a start to the day, but there are also opportunities for lunch visits, one-on-one mentoring programs, and community dinners.
“The walking school bus is one unique way to get college students out into the neighborhoods very early on in the morning,” Johnston said. “And that can be the tip of the iceberg and can be one conduit for really establishing a long-term deep authentic relationship with our neighbors.”
Johnston published his research from the 2017, 2018 and 2019 spring classes, “The Walking School Bus: Critical Community Engaged Learning in Action?” The research looked for patterns regarding community-engaged learning; authentic relationship development, reducing power differentials and social change orientation.