Opinion

Walking to Grove Elementary

Walking to Grove Elementary

Grove Elementary. The beautiful new school’s attendance boundaries were drawn to make it a “walking school.” Painstaking identification of kids’ homes enabled district planners to carve out a compact school population that could eliminate both the need for school buses and parents driving their little ones to school. With one pocket of exceptions, kids live close enough to Grove that it shouldn’t strain their little legs to get them to and from school afoot.

What a blessing! Grove Street was already so congested that it couldn’t carry an additional crunch of traffic. And think of the health benefits to sedentary children who otherwise would be riding guzzlers to and from school, afterwards watching an average of four hours of TV each day. We’re talking pre-teen couch-potatoes with a rate of obesity that is fueling an epidemic of juvenile diabetes. Doctors coined a new word for it: diabesity.

Did the scheme work? Not on the morning of October 3rd when leaden skies drizzled fine rain. Lest the little ones melt, parents drove them to school. Could be they caved in to chorus of little voices, all with the same complaint. “But mom, it’s raining.”

If the number of vehicles converging on Marysville’s “walking school” carried a message, it was that Grove Elementary is a walking school only when the sun is out. But even that may be an overstatement. I watched a significant number of students being dropped off the day before when pavement was dry. Notice to parents: Children do not melt.

This isn’t just a Marysville issue or even an exclusively U.S. issue. An Irish study concluded that less than 1% of Irish school children bicycle to school and that 70% of children living less than a mile distant are driven to school. The 12 month Irish study of over 600 children was triggered by concerns about childhood obesity.

Two possible reasons for so much parental taxi service: A fear that the route to school is fraught with danger or parents’ worries that it might be too much strain for little legs to travel a half-dozen blocks. Nonsense! Kids are tough and expenditure of a little effort might pay off in the classroom. Could be that learning activities are enhanced by that iota of sweat-equity earned through walking to school.

In my day we walked miles to and from school through drifting snow with wolves snapping at us all the way. Uphill both going and coming. Okay, that might be a slight exaggeration but we did walk. And yes, there were school buses if you lived a mile or more from school.

The typical walking school bus is an organized stream of kids with attendants fore and aft to keep order. Beginning wherever neighborhoods are thick with children, planners look for safe routes along which they may be collected. A code of common-sense rules keep children safe and reasonably orderly while attendants make sure that morning and afternoon commuters suffer minimal hold-ups at crossings.

A variation on the walking school bus theme puts responsible upper-class students at front and back to serve as monitors. For a child, there’s status to be gained from wearing a monitor’s beret or other identifying garment or insignia. The advantage of using students lies in awarding deserving kids with positions of trust. It may not be a big thing from an adult point of view, but to a child, being chosen to carry out a responsibility in sight of the whole community may serve as a valuable rite of passage, an occasion to grow a little which is something our society could use more of.

There are more benefits of walking school buses. A reduction in the time drivers spend stuck behind school buses loading or unloading children. Fewer irritations over waiting for those infuriatingly slow stop-signs on buses to ooze back into neutral positions. Chubby cherubs might walk off a few pounds. And, if the plan were broadly accepted, lowered transportation costs for the district and less frequent fill-ups for the family car.

Commuters will have to adjust certain driving habits. As veteran crossing-guard Pam Brown commented, it is a challenge to fend off free-right turners at the intersection of 67th and Grove. Pressed to keep schedules or just plain aggressive, they start their turns by wedging fenders into platoons of little ones crossing with the light. The peril increases with drivers grasping phones with one hand and coffee with the other, leaving the steering to their knees.

Why don’t more children sign up for walking school buses? From the parental view, the answer may lie in circumstance or fear. Circumstance may have put a child’s home far from a walking route. As to fear, we’ve been steeped in media-hyped fears for so long that many families hold monster-under-the-bed type fears about neighborhood streets. Nevertheless, there is safety in numbers.

Few would disagree that walking to school is better for most children than being chauffeured. The question for planners and parents then becomes, what habits or mind-sets have to change for parents to set aside the habit of driving kids wherever they need to go.

Comments may be addressed to: rgraef@verizon.net.

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