Once a week for eight weeks, the Randall Racers gather for a little run – or walk, or perhaps both.

They're elementary students in one of the Independence School District's free youth running clubs, started last semester in all but a few elementary schools in the district. Last school year, Randall Elementary started a club on its own.

Last semester about 600 students in grades 3-5 enrolled districtwide, ISD Youth Activities Director Chase Schneider said. This semester the number's about 500 – ranging from 30 to 50 per school.

“Next year hopefully we'll have the program at all elementary schools,” Schneider said.

The Randall students meet on Thursdays after school, and their sessions begin with a lesson centered around the district's character trait for the month and good nutrition. When they head outside, there's a large paved oval to use, and Randall also is adjacent to the Independence Athletic Complex. The coaches at Randall – across the district 60 staff members serve as coaches – have students divided up into groups that walk most of distances, run most of them or a mix of the two.

“They have to be what's best for themselves,” said Katie Hollenberg, a speech therapist at Randall and one of the club’s coaches.

Fifth grader Sparkle Grasso said she used to just run by herself and joining the club last year helped her meet people as a new student at Randall.

“I like being with people and learning different exercises,” she said.

“We learn about other runners, what they do for themselves” fifth grader Tristyn Simonton said of the little classroom sessions.

Last semester many ISD students ended the club season by participating in the kids portion of the Kansas City Marathon. Earlier this semester many participated in the PTA-sponsored 5K in the Space Center caves, and on April 30 many will be in the Independence Park Trot at Waterfall Park.

For many students, Hollenberg said, it's the first time they've been on a team, and even something as small as picking up some of the running lingo like “bib” or “heat” could prove helpful in the future.

“When they get to middle school, just feeling like they've had any exposure (to running and sports), they're so much more confident,” she said.

In addition, female students at Ott Elementary from ISD and Elm Grove and Fire Prairie Upper elementary schools in the Fort Osage School District are among more than 2,100 in grades 3-8 from around the Greater Kansas City area participating in Girls on the Run. It's a 10-week program that culminates in a celebratory 5K race.