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Christ-St. John’s School in West Salem and Northern Hills Elementary in Onalaska are this year’s winners in the seventh annual Coulee Region Walk to School Challenge. The challenge is sponsored by the La Crosse County Safe Routes to School Program — a project that encourages healthy and active lifestyles.

Twenty schools participated in the program as students walked, biked or even roller-bladed to school. Christ-St. John’s won in the category for schools with an enrollment under 250, while Northern Hills won in the over-250 category.

Private schools like Christ-St. John’s tend to have a number of students who come from outlying areas too far away to walk or bike to the school. Such schools can still take part in the competition by having their students walk during school hours as well. That’s exactly what happened at Christ-St. John’s said Principal Stephen Berg.

“All classes participated and each of our teachers made sure that students walked 15 minutes each day,” Berg said. Christ-St. John’s has a history of promoting healthy physical activity. A couple years ago they organized a “Walk to Mexico” where students compiled mileage equal to a trip to that country.

Berg said that students either walked around the parking lot or through nearby neighborhoods for this year’s challenge.

“They really enjoyed themselves — I didn’t hear any negatives,” Berg said. As part of Christ-St. John’s award, the school was presented with a Golden Shoe trophy engraved with the school name at a Nov. 7 assembly.

Meanwhile, at Northern Hills the Golden Shoe was escorted to school aboard their “walking school bus” on the morning of Nov. 6. Rebecca Lakowske, health educator for the La Crosse County Health Department, said the walk to school challenge is part of the Safe Routes to School program.

She said that 13 schools participate in the SRTS program year-round with other schools like West Salem participating only during the warmer months.

Northern Hills operates its walking school bus route on Wednesdays year round. Lakowske said that such programs are good for many reasons.

“We’re seeing health benefits, environmental benefits and even educational benefits,” Lakowske said. “There’s safety in numbers (while walking to school) because drivers are more aware — and moving before school helps kids’ concentration when they’re in classes. Another plus is that it removes traffic congestion in front of schools in the morning.”

Cathy Geister is the Walking School Bus Coordinator at Northern Hills. She said that the students she walks with really enjoy getting to school by themselves.

“Often the greatest hindrance to walking is parental safety concerns,” Geister said. “When kids walk in a large group, parents feel better about it.“

Lakowske said that kids who actively commute to school each day are more likely to be physically fit and less at risk of becoming overweight — plus they learn how to handle traffic safely and even contribute to better air quality by reducing heavy traffic volumes near schools.

Geister said that the Northern Hills walking school bus — which starts at Riders Club Road and goes down East Avenue to school — has come a long way since it was started with a grant in 2010.

“Some weeks in the first year it would only be my sons and a couple of neighbors,” Geister said. “This year we’ve been averaging in the mid-20s each week, with between 50 and 100 kids on special event days.”

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Entertainment and county government reporter

Randy Erickson covers arts and entertainment and county government for the La Crosse Tribune. Contact him at 608-791-8219 or randy.erickson@lee.net.

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