Walker Elementary School Assistant Principal Amy Wharton serves as crossing guard on Oct. 11 for International Walk to School Day. Credit: Heidi Randhava

Walker Elementary students, staff and parents joined others across the globe to celebrate International Walk to School Day on Oct. 11. Kindergarten through fifth grade students gathered at Central Park in Skokie, 9350 Central Park Ave., on a beautiful fall morning to get some steps in and promote the importance of safe routes to school.

Classroom teachers Jenna Arceneaux (front) and Emily Wittenberg capture the energy of the Oct. 11 event on their cellphones. Credit: Heidi Randhava

One of Walker’s signature events, Walk to School Day kicked off at 8:50 a.m., when students met up with their teachers on the park tennis courts. Students who travel to school by bus were dropped off at that location as well. Although the event had not been held for two years due to the pandemic, many participants were sharing memories of past celebrations.

Diana Sheehan pointed to her fourth-grade son, Dominic, when asked if she had ever participated in Walk to School Day before. “He’s my third,” she said. “We’ve done Walk to School ever since my oldest went through at Walker. It’s really cool to see. … When he was in kindergarten, he had his older brother in fifth grade and his sister in third.”

First-timers like the Perez family were pumped up too. Martin Perez arrived at the park early with his son, Anthony, a kindergartner. “This is my very first year, and I’m excited,” Perez said. “I can’t wait to see exactly what happens. I’ve heard nothing but great things about it.”

PE teacher April Likhite, a Walk to School Day organizer, gives students a wave as they cross a street. Credit: Heidi Randhava

The walk, organized by Walker physical education teacher April Likhite, started with fifth grade students leading the way. The students walked safely along Central Park Avenue, crossed at Church Street with the help of Principal James Gray and Assistant Principal Amy Wharton and then enter the school.

Likhite, in her sixth year of teaching at Walker, said, “When I came to Walker, it had already been part of their tradition. … So, it’s really fun to have the tradition back. I’m excited to have some Northwestern student-athletes join us on our walk.

“We could not have picked a better day for it,” added Likhite, who spent 11 years as head women’s cross country coach at Northwestern University before retiring from college coaching in 2015.

Students who were unable to walk from Central Park could participate in the celebration by going to the school gym, where they were supervised by teacher Bridget McGough.

“We had music playing, and students could walk around the gym,” McGough said. “They were able to get their ‘walk to school’ in, even if they were driven to school. Some of the kids danced as they did their laps around the gym.”

Walker students walk to school from Central Park in Skokie. Credit: Heidi Randhava

An October tradition

Walk to School Day in the United States, first organized by Partnership for a Walkable America, began in 1997 as a one-day event aimed at building awareness for the need for walkable communities. International Walk to School Day, established in 2000, is now celebrated in more than 40 countries each October.

In Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker also proclaimed Oct. 12 as “Illinois Walk and Roll to School Day to support green transportation practices and a healthy lifestyle for children,” according to an Oct. 3 state Department of Transportation news release.

About 11% of kids in the United States walk or ride their bikes to or from school, according to the Federal Highway Adminstration’s National Household Travel Survey. This rate has not changed in a decade, according to the study, which found that kids are more likely to continue “active commuting” (walking, using a wheelchair, biking or even skateboarding) if they are taught to do it when they are young.

Heidi Randhava is an award winning reporter who has a deep commitment to community engagement and service. She has written for the Evanston RoundTable since 2016.