Professor Johnston Publishes ‘Walking School Bus’ Research

April 06, 2020
Gonzaga News Service

Program Allows GU Students to Work
Toward Dismantling Systems of Injustice

SPOKANE, Wash. — Joe Johnston, Gonzaga University assistant professor of sociology and criminology, recently published a research study about a program in multiple Spokane elementary schools, in which college students volunteer to walk children from their homes to school.

The research paper — titled, “The Walking School Bus: Critical Community-Engaged Learning in Action?” — was published in Teaching Sociology, a peer-reviewed publication of the American Sociological Association.

Johnston conducted a three-year longitudinal study analyzing semester-long writing assignments in a Gonzaga sociology of education community-engaged learning course in partnership with the Walking School Bus (WSB). The research looked for patterns in the three tenets of critical community-engaged learning: authentic relationship development, reducing power differentials, and social change orientation. In three cohorts of the course, undergraduates spent early mornings walking with elementary school children.

Johnston believes this program allows GU students to work toward dismantling systems of injustice.

“The program focuses on providing community-building opportunities for youth, volunteers, and families, improving attendance/timeliness to school, and providing a healthy way to start the day,” Johnston said, noting the WSB is an imminently sociological program because it allows students to experience the neighborhood outside of a school that directly impacts the composition of students inside the school.

Gonzaga defines a community-engaged learning course as “a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.”

In addition to walking children to school, the class consists of a three-part writing assignment that requires students to sociologically analyze their own neighborhoods, homes, and schools, detail the neighborhood in which they volunteer, and to reflect on how they can be part of producing a more just educational system going forward in their lives.

The study investigated whether the program fostered authentic relationships, redistributed power among the volunteers and children, and embodied social change. The results showed that all three categories exhibited improvement each succeeding year.

Johnston believes the Walking School Bus program aligns perfectly with Gonzaga’s mission.

“The Gonzaga mission statement emphasizes the need to foster ‘lives of leadership and service for the common good,' " said Johnston. “The Walking School Bus is one pathway – by providing transformational, community-building possibilities through the simple act of walking side-by-side with youth early in the morning.”

The Walking School Bus is one of several outreach initiatives supported through Gonzaga's Opportunity Northeast Initiative ( aimed at strengthening campus-community partnerships that seek to build a more thriving neighborhood for individuals, youth, and families in Northeast Spokane.

About the Walking School Bus Program

The WSB is part of a larger federal Transportation Alternatives program (formerly Safe Routes to Schools), which began in the 1990s and focuses on providing safe spaces for elementary school children to engage in active, healthy transportation to school. By 2005, congressional approval provided funding for safer walking and biking opportunities for children to school in every state in America (Safe Routes to School 2019).

  • Academics
  • Service & Community Impact
  • College of Arts & Sciences
  • Academic Vice President
  • Sociology
  • News Center