Believe it or not, school is almost back in session, and as Rockford-area students head to their familiar bus stops, some youngsters will instead be heading to meet their Walking School Bus.

Since when did school buses walk?

For the past few years, the human caravan known as Walking School Bus has helped students to reach school safe and ready to learn. It’s all thanks to a special partnership between the United Way, Rockford Housing Authority, Rockford Public Schools and the YMCA.

Returning this year, the adult leaders of Walking School Bus will guide students age Kindergarten to 5th grade along two routes: From the Fairgrounds public housing complex to Lewis Lemon Elementary School, and from the Blackhawk public housing complex to Constance Lane Elementary. Along the way, these kids will hit other “bus stops” where they’ll meet their peers who likewise live too close to school for a traditional bus. At the end of the day, they’ll be escorted back home.

Free to the working-class families along the route, Walking School Bus provides many benefits to our area youth, and it’s just another signal of the ways the Rockford area is transforming from within.

“At the end of the day, we’re in the business of removing as many obstacles as we can to ensure people are successful, and that their neighborhoods are successful,” says Grant Schubert, Community Initiatives Director of United Way of Rock River Valley. “We know that if you put obstacles toward attendance in the way, it’s easy to start missing these kids.”

Here are three particularly awesome ways Walking School Bus is making Rockford a Top 25 City.

It’s Boosting Performance

The Walking School Bus provides a number of benefits to youngsters, starting with the fact that it’s getting kids into the classroom who otherwise might not attend, for a variety of reasons. Showing up is the most important way to begin an education.

There’s also a cognitive benefit to getting active before the school day, and the mile-long walk to school offers a great way for kids to burn off some energy and get themselves focused for the day ahead.

It’s Improving Safety

There are plenty of obstacles a child can face when walking to school all alone. They’ll face traffic, not just along busy streets and major thoroughfares. They may pass through gang territory, meet unsavory people or find amusing distractions. Come winter, they may struggle with poorly cleared sidewalks. Walking School Bus takes out the unknown factors by providing a safe, adult-guided means for children to travel to and from school.

When the final bell rings at night, these kids head to a safe after-school hangout, thus providing additional time for constructive activities and removing the temptation to misbehave before parents return home from work.

It’s Building Community

It takes a village to raise a child, and it’s a true partnership that’s making Walking School Bus a success. Funding and cooperation are coming from the United Way, Rockford Public Schools, Rockford Housing Authority and the YMCA. The City of Rockford is stepping up its efforts to keep the routes clear of snow and safe for youngsters. Along the way, altruistic neighbors have pitched in to help make the program a success.

But, most importantly, Walking School Bus is lending a hand to busy families and making a powerful difference in improving these families and their children’s futures.

“We realize that if we’re not providing these kids with a place to get to school on time, you can do whatever else you want,” says Schubert. “You can work with the police and all that, but the most important piece is getting them in a positive, safe environment, and getting them educated. That’s how you change the trajectory of a neighborhood.”