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Partnership Lessons from Active Routes to School

By Danielle Sherman on October 19th, 2016

Before joining Active Living By Design (ALBD), I was the project manager for Active Routes to School, a North Carolina Safe Routes to School Project funded by the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) and led by the North Carolina Division of Public Health (NCDPH). In that role, I supported 10 regional project coordinators across NC who work with partners on programming, training, policy, and environmental changes to make it easier for elementary and middle school students to safely walk and bike to school.

During my orientation, I learned that although 15 percent of children in NC ages 5-17 lived within one mile of their school and 34 percent within two miles[i], only four percent walked or bicycled to school at least once a week[ii]. When such challenges exist, collaboration is key for impactful change—and there was a clear need for NCDOT and NCDPH to work together. In this case, they partnered to enable more youth to reach the recommended level of physical activity and increase safety while walking and biking, which are key components of these organizations’ missions.

While project manager, I realized the primary role that this innovative statewide partnership played in increasing North Carolina’s participation in International Walk to School Day (WTSD), with a 242 percent increase from 2013 to 2016[iii] (Active Routes’ participation began in 2014). I saw the value of collaboration between these two state agencies as NC rose from 27th to 6th in national rankings of 2015 WTSD registrations. Overall, Active Routes to School is a great example of a multi-disciplinary and cross-sector partnership that achieves impactful community efforts, drawing on many of the lessons in ALBD’s Community Action Model.

What can this statewide organization’s success teach us about effective partnerships?

  1. It’s important to create a structure and organization that makes sense for the participants and the group’s mission. As the project manager, I was housed at NCDPH and served as the liaison between the funder (NCDOT), the project’s technical assistance provider and evaluator, and regional project coordinators. I supported the ten regional project coordinators contracted through lead county health departments. North Carolina’s commitment to having ten regional project coordinators work locally is a unique state-level approach. This seems to work because the regional project coordinators are able to collaborate with residents, health and transportation staff, and community and in-school champions to implement efforts. This structure and organization has increased local staff capacity for schools and communities to improve students’ safe walking and bicycling.
  2. Communication is enhanced when partners meet regularly. As a project manager, I also met with members of NCDOT and NCDPH state project staff bi-weekly and quarterly to discuss issues, coordinate efforts, and determine action steps for moving the project forward. In addition, I met one-on-one with the ten regional project coordinators each month to discuss progress and challenges. Quarterly meetings also helped bring together all the project coordinators and state project staff to share updates. This ongoing communication helped to better coordinate efforts, keep staff informed, generate action, and build genuine relationships, especially at the start of the project.
  3. Ensure partners’ work is driven by the needs of the community. While the ultimate goal of Active Routes to School is to increase the number of elementary and middle school students who are safely walking and biking to school, it became apparent that it was challenging for some students to walk and bike to school. Based on feedback from parents and school staff gathered by the regional project coordinators, these students now have options to walk and bike at school. In addition, regional project coordinators conduct parent perception surveys annually to determine the attitudes and issues that influence how students get to and from school, which can be useful for ongoing programmatic improvements.

Active Routes to School has been intentional about its partnership as a means to improve community health. At ALBD, I continue to learn from and share Active Routes to School’s approach as an example of success to support my work and the work of my colleagues.

[i] North Carolina Child Health Assessment and Monitoring Program (CHAMP), State Center for Health Statistics, (2011). Available at:

[ii] North Carolina Child Health Assessment and Monitoring Program (CHAMP), State Center for Health Statistics, (2011). Available at:

[iii] Obtained by the National Center of Safe Routes to School. WTSD registration comparisons from 2013 to October 5, 2016.

Danielle Sherman

Project Manager

Community advocate, planning superstar, and work-life balancer.