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AUSTIN -- In May, hundreds in Northeast Austin celebrated the opening of a new pedestrian bridge that allows kids to safely walk to Bernice Hart Elementary.

That bridge is one reason the Austin School District cut the number of school buses servicing Hart from 10 to just one.

A new pilot program is helping kids in that neighborhood get off the bus and on a free bike.

As the sun rises over Hart Elementary, parents and kids make their way to campus. Some are on foot, while others are pedaling as part of a bike to school pilot project targeting third, fourth and fifth-graders.

Joseph Lara,11, passed the program's safety test.

"We practice our signals, how to stop and how to use our brakes," Lara said.

Lara and other students have a free bike and helmet they'll use to ride to school. "It has it's own lock and you can switch gears so you can go uphill and downhill, it also has a little bell" he said.

"He gets some exercise before he goes to school," said Joseph's father Leonardo Lara. "He won't be so sleepy in the morning."

With more than 700 students at Hart Elementary, fewer than 50 are taking part in the pilot program. The district hopes to bring that number to 300.

Throughout the school year volunteers will help guide young riders safely from their homes to school.

The district measured the kid's body mass index, or BMI at the start of the school year. It will measure it again in a few months to see if exercise made a significant difference.

"As well as look at their academic performance because science research shows that physical activity increases oxygen flow to the brain which increases the synapses firing which should help students wake up and be more engaged in the conversations happening in the classroom," said Hart Principal David Dean.

With so many new bike riders and walkers, the City of Austin's Transportation Department plans to add a new crosswalk in front of the pedestrian bridge hundreds use to get to school during the week.

"They can put pedestrian crossing signs up almost immediately," said city spokesperson Chris Moore. "We want a little more protection right here for these kids."

The bike to school pilot program is costing the city $50,000.

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