The lucky ones have a parent or friend by their side when they step onto the bus or the sidewalk to go to school that first day.

But the children of Evanston might be surprised at how many people are working behind the scenes to ensure them a smooth journey from home to District 65 schools on Aug. 30 and thereafter.

Off and Rolling

At District 65, the transportation department is getting its school buses in a row. A new provider is on board this year. The School Board voted in March to award the in-District transportation contract to Positive Connections Transportation. Their bid for $2,113.736 was lower than that of Alltown, the former provider, which bid $2,196,716.

According to minutes from the Board finance committee meeting, “[Positive Connections’] recommendations from other districts…were overwhelmingly positive; the depot/garage facilities are located in Evanston…and a site visit by District staff found employees to be professional and courteous with excellent garage facilities.”

Pat Markham, District 65 communications director, says the bidding was mandated. “By law, the District has to re-bid the [transportation] contract after three years,” she says. At least “one benefit accrued from the bid,” she says: Given its lower price tag, District transportation costs will remain at last year’s level without cuts in service.

District 65 elementary school students are eligible for busing if they live 1 1/2 miles or more from school; if they receive special services such as bilingual or special education at a school other than their attendance-area school; or if they must cross a road the state deems a “hazard.”

Children in elective schools or programs – permissive transfers and magnet school students, for example – pay a portion of the busing fees themselves. English speakers in the Two-Way Immersion ( TWI) program also pay part of the bus fee, while native Spanish-speakers ride free. This is because TWI is considered their bilingual education, says Ms. Markham.

Busing is no small item for a district with a 2009-10 K-8 enrollment of 6,458 students.

The District 65 2009-10 Opening of Schools Report counted 2,426 eligible students – more than a third of the children in the District – riding the bus last year, says Ms. Markham. Of those, 503 were eligible because of distance; 1,115 because of a hazardous crossing; and 808 because of a program.

The report shows that 6 percent of the riders were Asian, 33 percent black, 17 percent Hispanic, 1 percent American Indian, 8 percent multi-racial and 35 percent white.

They traveled in an American icon, its familiar yellow-orange selected at a 1939 conference because it allowed black lettering to stand out even in semi-darkness. The National Institute of Standards and Technology adopted and standardized the color, now called National School Bus Glossy Yellow.

The children will recognize the color, if not the name Positive Connections, on District 65 buses when the school year begins. Ms. Markham expects they will also recognize a number of the bus drivers. She says the District “sees a pattern” of drivers’ wanting to work in the community where they live. Many switched to Alltown when Robinson Bus bowed out, she says.

The RoundTable was unable to obtain further information from the new company. Employees at both the local Evanston office and the Markham, Ill., corporate office of Postitive Connections were unavailable to answer questions.

Ms. Markham did ask that parents and children be “understanding in the early days of the school year, because we have a new provider.” They are still working out details such as routes and software, she says.

Safe Crossings

Evanston’s concern for children’s safe passage to and from school encompasses more than buses.

The District website maps a “safe walk route” for each school. The City collaborates with the District 65 Transportation Department and the Traffic Division of the Evanston Police Department to create and oversee the routes. The City is “currently going through the entire system,” says Rickey Voss, head of Evanston Parking Services.

Mr. Voss says he, senior City traffic engineer Rajeev Dahal and District 65 transportation manager Roger Allen “have been walking the safe routes” to be sure they are still safe and to check on details like signs at street corners.

Mr. Voss also oversees the crossing guards. Though he says he was “down a couple” in mid-August, he expects to have a full staff of 49 on board by Aug. 30. The guards, most of them retired senior citizens, spend about an hour on the corner every school morning. They arrive 45 minutes before school starts, Mr. Voss says, and stay on 15 minutes after the bell “to catch the stragglers.” Some have stood watch for years. “As a whole,” he says, “they are very dedicated.”

Green Light for Walkers

While a guard’s cheerful greeting can set the tone for a child’s day, an involved parent, says Ms. Markham, can be an “invaluable asset.” District 65 is one of 500 school districts nationwide who have signed on to the Million Father March, she says, encouraging families – especially fathers – to demonstrate their support for education by walking their children to school the first day.

Washington School celebrated both family and shoe power with its “walking school bus” last spring. By putting their feet to work, families in the Washington community joined an international initiative, spending time together while demonstrating the health benefits of outdoor exercise.

Now the City is following in Washington’s footsteps.

This year the Evanston Health Department is staging Walk Week the first week of school. The City is encouraging youth of all ages to walk Aug. 30 – Sept. 3 to promote physical activity for children. No registration or other fee is involved.

Studies have shown a worrisome decline in children’s physical activity. Walking to school is an opportunity for them to move toward a healthier lifestyle by incorporating exercise into their daily lives. And with its use of human energy in place of fossil fuel, walking gets a green light for sustainability.

The Walk Week program will also emphasize the importance of attending classes the first week of school. Information about Walk Week will be offered at the libraries, recreation centers, YMCA and YWCA after Aug. 24. The first week’s attendance impacts public school funding.

No-Idle Work

The District 65 School Board has four words for parents who drive children to school: Turn off the engine. Board member Katie Bailey is championing the Board policy against idling. Though the policy cannot be legally enforced, she says parents are sympathetic when reminded that idling their cars for just a few minutes causes both environmental damage and harm to the most vulnerable citizens: children. The fact that parking is often adjacent to school playgrounds makes it even more important to turn off the engine while stopping or waiting, says Ms. Bailey.