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AHA improves the health and well-being of Wake County residents by facilitating and supporting community initiatives.

The City and Transportation as Classroom: Exploris School

photo courtesy of Exploris Middle School

Photo courtesy of Exploris Middle School

For the students of The Exploris School in downtown Raleigh, walking around town and/or riding public transportation buses is a daily part of their experiential learning.  “When the students are walking downtown, it’s not only healthy for them, but they learn so much from interacting with adults daily, from the social interactions happening across groups of children, and even from watching construction and seeing beautiful architecture,” said Shannon Hardy, a 6th grade teacher at Exploris Middle School. “The children say ‘hello’ to adults, and they are in constant communal interaction, rather than isolated in the classroom,” Hardy continued.

Whether they are walking to Raleigh City Farm for service learning, to Cameron Village Library, or to nearby parks for science lessons, Exploris students are experiencing the community they live in and learning along the way. “Plus they are navigating downtown, and we are teaching them how to cross the road and how to be good pedestrians,” Hardy said.

When Exploris middle school students go the NC Museum of Art, they hop on the Capital Area Transit (CAT) bus to Rex Hospital, and from there they walk over to the art museum. “We load up 34 kids on the bus, they pay $1.25 each, and off we go. It’s a lot cheaper than renting a bus,” Hardy said. The students even tap into technology and use the R-LINE app to know when the bus is coming.

Exploris Elementary School students taking public transportation.

Exploris Elementary School students taking public transportation. Photo courtesy of Lifelong Impressions.

“Parents really like the confidence and independence this instills in their kids,” according to Hardy. A group of 7 or 8 middle schoolers even ride the bus on Fridays after school to Triangle Rock Club, and parents pick them up there afterwards. “One mother has a child with autism, and she shared that she never thought her child would be going with a group of kids and traveling 10 miles on a city bus to rock climb,” Hardy said.

Given its location and the school’s philosophy of experiential, project-based learning, the walking and public transportation makes sense, but according to Hardy, more students should have these opportunities.

“Folks might worry about losing instructional time walking to the library to do research or math projects at the bowling alley at NC State, but my view is that humans are made to walk. It’s healthy, it feels good, it’s social. And as a teacher, there are lots of interactions happening across groups of children on these long walks together beyond the learning. We always see something along the way worth engaging and learning about.”

Hardy also noted research on connectivity and physical activity breaks during the day. The students are active and focused, and high and low learners alike benefit from the physical activity during the day.

Exploris Elementary School students walking around town. Photo courtesy of Lifelong Impressions.

Exploris Elementary School students walking around town. Photo courtesy of Lifelong Impressions.

“We need to share public buildings, libraries, parks and other spaces with students. Kids become part of something bigger when they are engaging beyond the school grounds,” Hardy said. “Our students are constantly engaging the public.   The working citizens of downtown are interested in the kids being downtown, whether they are walking somewhere or playing in Nash Square. Our students’ presence also affirms that our capital city is safe.”

Riding Public Transit to/from School

This school year Exploris also worked with CAT to promote students riding to school on the buses. At Exploris, 40 children have passes to ride CAT buses for free (plus all children under 12 can get free passes), and anyone can ride the R-LINE for free. Because the school is so close to the bus hub at Moore Square, this works well. Some students also ride to work with their parents, and then take the bus from their parents’ office to school, Hardy said.

To help families get children to school, Exploris has coordinated 3 sites drop-off sites, selected based on student zip codes, where parents can drop children off to ride the bus to school, and drivers are watching out for the students. Schools that want to work with the city in this way can contact Kathy Molin, the City of Raleigh’s Transportation Demand Management (TDM) Coordinator.

“We have sister schools in Germany and Japan, and in those countries, there are no school buses. Children take public transportation to school. The current system of busing students is unaffordable,” Hardy said. “I hope we can start exploring how we can adapt to a more fiscally responsible way of moving people and children to work and school.  We need to continue to take our children out of the classrooms and connect them to their communities.

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