Helping kids show up to school Happy, Healthy and Ready to Learn

Students, parent volunteers and law enforcement participate in a “Walking School Bus," one of many ideas to help kids show up at school happy, healthy and ready to learn.

Students, parent volunteers and law enforcement participate in a “Walking School Bus," one of many ideas to help kids show up at school happy, healthy and ready to learn.


Most people of a certain age remember walking or biking to school when they were young. But those were clearly different days. In northern Michigan, we share the same problems as in most cities: kids today are generally less active, less mobile and more prone to developing lifelong habits that can ultimately be detrimental to physical and mental health.

“I don’t know why we’re thinking of building all of this additional infrastructure. Nobody’s going to use it.”

Former City of Traverse City Commissioner

This comment lit a fire under those who were determined to prove him wrong.

As part of a comprehensive active transportation planning initiative, a coalition of advocacy groups, policy makers, business leaders and committed citizens came together to apply for Michigan Department of Transportation grants to build and maintain sidewalks, connected to neighborhoods and trail systems, to enhance the infrastructure that allows people to move around downtown in ways other than an individual vehicle.

But once the new sidewalks are in place, how can we work together to prove that Commissioner wrong? Having received a seed grant from Rotary Charities of Traverse City, we were given an opportunity to study this in depth using a Systems Practice model.

Systems Practice is a process to guide our thinking and deepen our impact as we consider ways to influence complex societal problems - such as encouraging kids to be more active. And while the goal of this Systems Practice process was ultimately to build a “System Map” that can serve as a shared landmark, the most important part of this exercise is the conversations that it engenders among participants.

The process itself is an important way to meaningfully impact the system.

Our Safe Routes to School team included representatives from advocacy groups, city government and both public and private/parochial schools led by Mark VanderKlipp, Connect_CX partner and Systems Practice Sherpa.

The first step is to recruit a team that’s diverse enough to bring a variety of experience and opinion to the table. Our team was corralled by Ty Schmidt, leader of Norte Youth Cycling and a previous Systems Practice participant.

The second step is to “frame” the group’s work by envisioning the long view (decades in the future), short term goals/tangible markers of success in 1-5 years, and finally a Framing Question that’s sufficiently specific, yet sufficiently broad, to explore the system as the group understands it. This exercise helps to get the entire team centered around the system boundaries we define together.

Our Guiding Star:

Smart, healthy kids turn into smart, healthy adults. The Traverse City community will exhibit and normalize proactive, healthy behaviors with kids arriving to school ready to learn. Improved health outcomes and academic success will result.

Educational and encouragement programs, infrastructure, policy and system priorities visibly promote and support healthy, active-for-life culture and  lifestyles.

Near Star:

In the next 5 years, our community will see measurable improvements in:

  • Awareness of resources available

  • Walk/bike travel rates to school

  • Educational and encouragement program numbers

  • Progressive policy changes

  • Miles of infrastructure installed, maintained

  • Recognition of the above (awards/social/media)

Framing Question:

What are the factors/assumptions that inhibit or empower kids to actively get themselves to school in Traverse City?

Once complete, the fun work begins.

VanderKlipp describes the next steps after the opening exercise.

VanderKlipp describes the next steps after the opening exercise.

First, we work independently and then as a group to fully describe some potential aspects to the Framing Question. We open our aperture to see the system from as many different angles as possible, placing each idea on a post-it note.

Sorting the initial exercise into Themes

Sorting the initial exercise into Themes

Then, we sort the feedback into themes that have a common thread. Once we’ve discussed and debated these, we begin to build causal loops that help to describe how the system works. Done correctly, these loops should be able to be seen as either “virtuous” or “vicious” depending on your point of view.

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The elements that make up the loops can be one of five possible categories:

  • Structural: can be measured/quantified (yellow)

  • Attitudinal: mindsets that influence the system (blue)

  • Transactional: leaders that influence the system (green)

  • Factors: items that influence a specific element (gray, below)

  • Catalysts: items we can identify that have an outsized influence on how the system works (red, below)

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Finally, we connect the loops, and those elements that exist outside the loops, in ways that help codify the team’s understanding of how the system works AS IT EXISTS today. As we did this, we described three types of connections:

  • Those that are working well

  • Those that are weak, but exist in some form, and

  • Those that don’t exist at all.

Safe Routes to School System Map showing all elements, factors, loops and connections

The result is a system map that our team could use to hypothesize different interventions, and by doing so impact specific portions of the map to positively address the City Commissioner’s original question.

Systems Intervention Ideas

We took the time to describe the system that exists as we understand it. Now, for each of our team members, we used that map to hypothesize how they, in their work within their organizations and together, can impact the system in positive ways to achieve the goal. What specific ideas for projects, presentations, conversations, planning sessions could they propose to do their part?

Each team member described their role and impact; here, we’ll detail just two:

The City of Traverse City’s Role

The City of Traverse City addresses some of the missing links from the Planning loop, connecting with education, infrastructure and increasing perceptions of safety and convenience for parents.

  • Infrastructure

    • Statistics: The city maintains 79 miles of sidewalks, 10 miles of multi-use trails and 7.25 miles of bike lanes

    • Support: FY 2015/2016, allocated funding for “gap and infill” program city-wide

    • Revenue: $4.5MM bond for repair of existing, addition of 10.3 miles of new sidewalk

    • Maintenance: snow removal and repairs

    • Law Enforcement

  • Planning

    • Policies:

      • Complete Streets Policy

      • Stop for Pedestrians local law

      • Transportation Element/city Master Plan

      • Infrastructure requires “context sensitive solutions”

    • Active Transportation Planning Activities

Grand Traverse Area Catholic Schools (GTACS) Role

GTACS aims to impact the system by working with the City to develop active planning initiatives for their schools, including plans to reduce car-line congestion around Immaculate Conception (a new K-8 school building in the heart of the city) by initiating “Park and Stroll” initiatives.

  • Approach GTACS administration and parent groups with ideas furnished by Norte, an advocacy group also involved in this exercise (flyer at left);

  • Develop communication plan for families that come to new student orientation, and also for those involved in Parent Teacher Organizations;

  • Launch, test, reflect and share learnings;

  • Apply to other schools in the GTACS system.

Ty Schmidt of NORTE kicks off the community conversation at our local public library.

Finally, we invited the public to a Community Conversation about Safe Routes to School, one where people could understand the work we’d done together and share their thoughts about how to move the system forward. By doing so, we worked together to positively influence the system in new ways: building awareness, sharing initial ideas, enlisting others in the cause and encouraging even more community conversations.

It’s important to note that these initial ideas comprise only the starting line: while this was the end of our initial grant-funded project, all of our participants are now connected in new and fruitful ways. They’ll be able to share what they’ve learned to encourage families and kids to show up to school happy, healthy and ready to learn.

“Prior to this process I had no idea how getting kids to school differently was even possible for us, since most of our students don’t live within biking or walking distance. But now I’m actively planning to reduce car-line congestion, increase safety and convenience, and help our kids get moving in fun ways before and after the school day.”

– GTACS Immaculate Conception School Planner/Project Manager