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Nahant students put best feet forward

Violet Powell, 6, receives her certificate for Walking Wednesdays and a congratulations from Johnson School Principal Kevin Andrews, Leah Beckett from Massachusetts Safe Routes to School, and School Resource Officer Keith O'Brien on Wednesday. (Spenser Hasak)

NAHANT — Nearly a year after the school participated in a state program that encourages students to walk to school, about a quarter of the Johnson Elementary School population continues to hoof it each day.

“We’re to a point where we have a pattern and a routine,” said Principal Kevin Andrews. “We know that Penelope and Ella will walk every single day and a small group of fifth graders are going to walk from Little Nahant. The sidewalks could be better (shoveled) but we had kids walk today.”

On days the school promotes the activity, including weekly Walking Wednesdays, more than 80 percent of children typically participate, said Andrews. Students are given a punch card and a volunteer celebrity punches the cards of each student who walks to school on Wednesday. Students who had their card punched eight times received a certificate and shook hands with Nahant Police school resource officer, Keith O’Brien, at a ceremony on Wednesday afternoon.  

The effort to get children walking to school started with the Massachusetts Safe Routes to School Program, sponsored by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation with funds from the Federal Highway Administration almost a year ago. The program promotes safer routes for students to get to school by fostering partnerships between advocacy groups, law enforcement, education leaders, and public health departments.

On Winter Walk Day last February, an annual Safe Routes initiative to start schools off by encouraging them all to walk on a specific day, more than 83 percent of Johnson School students walked to school despite the morning’s snow and cold weather, and the school was recognized for its efforts at the Massachusetts State House.

The Parent Teacher Organization upped the game by offering an incentive for classrooms with the highest percentage of participation — a size 14 sneaker turned Golden Shoe Trophy.

The trophy was passed to the classroom with the highest percentage each Wednesday for the remainder of the school year.

Before the initiative, only 30 percent of the school children were walking daily, despite the island’s tiny size. Meeting places were arranged to encourage walking together as a group activity and fifth graders were trained as walking mentors.

Within the year, 90 percent of students were consistently walking to school on each Walking Wednesday. When school returned in the Fall, the momentum was kept up.

Kindergartener Ryan Sherlock said he walks to school most days, and his favorite part is spending the extra time with his friends.

“Today my mom drove a speck of the way and I walked the rest,” said Sherlock, 5.

Five-year-old Sean Abbady said his favorite part of walking to school is running down the hill to Sherlock’s house.

As the school prepares for the next official Winter Walk day, Andrews said the School Council is mapping out walking groups by neighborhood, naming a fifth or sixth grader as a group leader to ensure the rest of the children are following safety rules.

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