Education

Tuolumne Elementary families take steps to make getting to school safer

Tuolumne School students Luis Mando, left, and Guadalupe Valencia, with cello, and teacher Rita Waterford lead a walking bus of about 50 people down the dirt-lined portion of Sonora Avenue to the school in south Modesto, Calif., on Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014.
Tuolumne School students Luis Mando, left, and Guadalupe Valencia, with cello, and teacher Rita Waterford lead a walking bus of about 50 people down the dirt-lined portion of Sonora Avenue to the school in south Modesto, Calif., on Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014. naustin@modbee.com

Tuolumne Elementary’s Walking Bus to School Program got off on the right foot, with hundreds of parents and students joining for a companionable stroll on a sunny fall morning.

“We always walk,” said mom Blanca Tellez, one of a dozen moms and kids walking wide dirt paths along Sonora Avenue toward the school Wednesday morning.

“I always walk to school. Besides, I want to lose some weight,” said Gloria Noriega with a grin as her 8-year-old daughter, Angelina Gonzalez, translated.

“It’s easier to walk with friends,” said Evelyn Gonzalez, 7.

More than 50 people had joined the walking bus by the time the Sonora Avenue group reached the campus from the north side, chatting as they walked and pushed strollers. Ceres police motorcycle Officer Keith Kitcher gave them a lights-and-siren arrival escort before rolling off to safeguard the stragglers.

Another group of roughly 100 arrived at the front of the school, traveling north from Hatch Road along Herndon Road, with Principal Heather Contreras.

“This is a huge thing, This is one of the things we’re doing toward getting the community on board, bringing parents to school in a positive way. There’s safety, of course, but for me, this was most about building community,” Contreras said, standing among families taking cellphone pictures with mascots.

Troo the Memorial Medical Center kangaroo obligingly posed time after time. Doctors Medical Center’s as-yet-unnamed tiger had even more fans, since the school’s mascot is a tiger, too.

Standing beside him, Safe Kids Stanislaus coordinator Rena Lepard said a grant is paying for the program, including buying the yellow school bus T-shirts worn by bus leaders. “It’s for pedestrian safety, which is especially important here because of the tragedy last March,” Lepard said, referring to the death of a 5-year-old Tuolumne student hit by a city bus in front of the school.

Contreras said the grant’s timing meshed with a parent drive for traffic safety. The school’s Safety Committee supports the project, as have attendees at the school’s Second Cup of Coffee monthly meetings.

Wednesday, nine parents joined nearly all Tuolumne staff and teachers who volunteered to lead the long parades of walkers, she said, and 30 more parents signed up that morning. Walk leaders must take a tuberculosis test and have a background check, which the program pays for, Contreras said.

The walking school buses will be one morning a week, likely Fridays, but some parents want to walk students home as well, she said. “This is really led by parent interest,” Contreras said, with parents taking the routes they normally walk anyway.

Tuolumne kids took a survey on safe walking and biking last week, which will be compared with results after several weeks of class discussions and papers sent home. School assemblies tackled pedestrian safety Wednesday, and two students seen riding to school without helmets were given free ones.

“Hopefully, all these efforts will work together and we’ll start seeing changes,” Contreras said. “The walks have lots of parents talking to each other, so hopefully it will start to build that unity.”

Helping with staff unity, a walking and running group is starting up in concert with Modesto City Schools employee health efforts. “I ran the neighborhood yesterday,” Contreras said. “It helps to get to know where our kids are, and so the kids can see us, too. Then you’re a part of their world.”

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