As a group of children walked home together from school in Providence, they held hands and played the "I Spy" guessing game. When they reached a busy intersection, an adult accompanying them prodded, "What's the rule?"
"Behind the line!" they said in unison, as they stepped back from the edge of the curb and waited for the walk signal.
Shortly after, the group stopped in front of 8-year-old Jaiden Guzman's house. He said goodbye to his friends and raced to his front door. His mother waved and the rest of the walking school bus continued on its way.
For a growing number of children in Rhode Island, Iowa and other states, the school day starts and ends in the same way — they walk with their classmates and an adult volunteer to and from school. Walking school buses are catching on in school districts nationwide because they are seen as a way to fight childhood obesity, improve attendance rates and ensure that kids get to school safely.
Ten-year-old Rosanyily Laurenz signed up for the Providence walking school bus this school year. Before, she said, she was sometimes late to school when her grandmother didn't feel well enough to walk with her.
But now, "I get to walk with my friends," Rosanyily said. "Plus, I get snacks."
Many programs across the country are funded by the federal Safe Routes to School program, which pays for infrastructure improvements and initiatives to enable children to walk and bike to school.
Robert Johnson, of the Missouri-based PedNet Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for transit alternatives, said the success of the programs reflects a growing interest in getting kids more active.
"Every parent is looking for ways to make their child a little healthier, and walking to school is one," he said.
In 2012, about 30 percent of students living within a mile of school walked there in the morning and 35 percent walked home in the afternoon, according to the National Center for Safe Routes to School. Those numbers have increased by about 6 percentage points since 2007.
Organizers in Providence are also motivated by high rates of chronic absenteeism. Thirty-seven percent of Providence students missed 10 percent or more of the 2010-11 school year.
The nonprofit agency Family Service of Rhode Island targeted Mary E. Fogarty Elementary School for its first walking school bus in 2012 because it's located in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. Children who live within a mile of school don't qualify for the bus.
In Sioux City, Iowa, nearly 1,000 children in 10 elementary schools use walking school buses during the spring and fall, said Alison Benson, spokeswoman for the district. Benson said the program has helped the schools incorporate fitness into the morning routine and build a sense of community.
Elementary schools in Columbia, Missouri, were among the first in the nation to have walking school buses. Piloted in 2003, the program, at its height, involved 450 children, 13 schools and about 200 volunteers. It was canceled this year because of funding issues, according to the PedNet Coalition.
Johnson said he is working with 15 school districts in Kansas on what may become the largest walking school bus project in the United States.
Some districts have been able to cut school bus routes and save money because of the program, he said.
On the milelong route in Providence, the program's manager, Allyson Trenteseaux, and another volunteer recently led Jaiden, Rosanyily and six other children through busy intersections and around broken glass littering the sidewalks.
On the walks, Trenteseaux said, she mends relationships among the kids, builds relationships and intervenes when there are problems. During the winter, a walk leader noticed some of the children were wearing slippers and bought them all boots.
Last year, 11 of the 14 students who participated and completed a survey attended school more often. The program now has a waiting list, and Family Service plans to expand into more schools next year.
No one wants to go to the dentist, but kids need to. A small cavity left to fester can grow into a big health problem. Although the government made pediatric dental care one of the health law's "essential benefits," new data suggest a lot of parents didn't buy dental coverage during the online enrollment period.
About 60% of U.S. children will have had cavities by age 5, according to a report from the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. Children with tooth decay are more likely to have ear and sinus infections. The chance of developing other chronic problems, such as obesity, diabetes and even heart disease, also increases.
Paul Reggiardo, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry's Council on Dental Benefit Programs, says early dental problems can affect children's learning, how they interact with other kids and their ability to eat.
"It starts having an impact much more than cavities," he says.
Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.
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It may feel tempting – proper even – to help your child with homework, but parents who get involved this way don’t improve their kids’ test scores or grades, and can hurt their academic achievement, two researchers have found.
“We need to do away with the assumption that anything parents do will help. That assumes that parents have all the answers, and parents do not have all the answers,” Angel L. Harris, one of the scholars, told TODAY Moms.
“Some of the things that they do may actually lead to declines in achievement – inadvertently, of course.”
Harris, a professor of sociology and African and African-American studies at Duke, and Keith Robinson, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Texas, Austin, are the authors of the book “The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement With Children’s Education.”
They analyzed surveys of American families released in the last three decades by the U.S. Department of Education – surveys that followed the same families over time and collected information such as kids’ achievements, behaviors and their parents’ behaviors.
“We found that when parents from various racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups regularly helped their child with homework, in most cases, it made no difference for the child’s improvement in their test scores in reading, math, and their grades,” Robinson said.
“Regular help with homework… even compromised achievement in grades for white, black and non-Mexican Hispanic children.”
Could the findings simply reflect the fact that kids struggling with school ask for more homework help, thus making it look as though children who get more help do worse? No, Harris said, because the researchers measured the change in achievement among all kids, including those who performed well in school. The effect of parental homework involvement was the same across the board.
Since the surveys only provided information about how often parents helped withhomework, not how they helped, Harris and Robinson can only speculate about the “why” part of the results. The basic message to parents is that being involved will not always result in better grades, Robinson said.
“Parents tend to take the reins of how they’re going to help with homework without consulting the child,” Robinson noted. “So maybe parents could ask kids, ‘Is what I’m doing helping you?’”
"It makes you rethink the assumption that helpers know what they’re doing, that they know how to help," Harris added.
Vicki Davis, a high school teacher at Westwood Schools in Camilla, Ga., said families who are over-involved in their children’s homework can enable helplessness. She’s seen her share of parents doing the assignments for their kids, especially writing papers, or taking charge of high-stakes, big projects.
“As a teacher, you recognize a student’s work. It’s like seeing somebody’s face every day and then all of a sudden, their face looks different,” Davis said.
“I don’t think most parents meant to do it. They just kind of start taking over.”
Davis expects elementary school students to get help from parents because they’re still learning study skills, and she doesn’t mind if older students talk “big picture” with their families about a project.
But in general, parents should limit their involvement to making sure kids are completing their homework, she advised.
She finds the students who do best in school have parents who hold them accountable and regularly look at their grades. The goal is to create independent, lifelong learners, she said.
Kerry Lyons, a mother of five in Irvington, N.Y., said the research findings are a “huge relief.” Lyons works full time, so when she gets home, her kids – three kindergartners, one second-grader and one fourth-grader – are usually done with homework.
She estimates she helps twice a week, and then sits down with each child during the weekend to discuss what they worked on.
“I beat myself up sometimes because I’m surrounded by parents who are so focused on their kids and so focused on helping them with their school work and helping them succeed, and I simply don’t have the hours in the day to do that,” Lyons, 42, said.
“You worry about setting them up for the best possible start… (but) they’re going to be OK and they might even be better off.”
If helping with homework isn’t a good way for parents to be involved, Harris and Robinson found three ways that do help kids do better in school: Requesting a particular teacher for your child; expecting him or her to go to college, and discussing school activities with your child.