Jeff Jardine

‘Walking school bus’ aims to deliver students safely

A Modesto police motorcycle officer shows off his ride to children at Tuolumne Elementary School on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015, as part of the school’s Walking School Bus awareness and safety program for children who walk to school and home again at night.
A Modesto police motorcycle officer shows off his ride to children at Tuolumne Elementary School on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015, as part of the school’s Walking School Bus awareness and safety program for children who walk to school and home again at night. HEATHER CONTRERAS/ Contreras.H@monet.k12.ca.us

Remember walking to school as a kid?

Every day brought a new adventure. In the mill town of Standard east of Sonora during the 1960s, we dodged logging trucks that barreled around the curve on the way to the sawmill. They’d warn us with the chugging sound of a diesel motor gearing down as it neared the sawmill gate, and we learned to make eye contact with the drivers, to get them to honk at us so we were all on the same page.

From that curve, we’d head down the street toward the school. A real no-kid’s land. One house had a yard full of junk. To get past it, we had to evade the owner’s snarling dogs. And just when the curs gave up, his geese would come after us, honking and trying to take a nip out of the nearest backside, which always belonged to the slowest among us.

Indeed, those walks to school weren’t without their perils. But it all seems pretty benign compared to what kids might face here in Modesto most mornings or afternoons. They walk in the dim early-morning light which, next month, will switch to the early dusk of Pacific Standard Time.

Some walk through some pretty rough neighborhoods, where gangs claim the streets. Some drivers, including the parents of fellow students, drive way too fast through school zones.

And sometimes misfortune strikes, as was the case in March 2014 when a Modesto Area Express bus struck and killed a Tuolumne Elementary School kindergartner as he crossed the residential street where his mother waited for him on the other side.

Yet, it remains important for children to be able to walk to school and back home each day.

“We have lots of parents who don’t have cars,” Tuolumne Elementary Principal Heather Contreras said. “We are a walking school. We have bike racks with no bikes in them because of the poverty.”

Which is why at Tuolumne Elementary, where south Modesto gives way to north Ceres, 700 children along with school personnel and parents participated in the “Walking School Bus” this week. Other schools have staged similar events, all with the same aim.

Teachers, administrators and parents fanned out into the neighborhoods to meet with children on specific street corners and then walked to the campus together, as they would if they rode buses, picking up more students at other stops along the way.

“The point is to show them and their parents that it can be safe and fun,” Contreras said. “We’re making a home-to-school connection, and building grass roots with parents.”

They emphasized safety and watching out for each other. They taught looking in both directions when crossing the streets. They talked about watching out for cars driven by people who aren’t necessarily looking out for them.

“Some of them have blinders on,” said Billy Boyle, a Modesto police officer who works in the traffic division and gives safety presentations at the schools. “They drive past the schools and they’re in la-la land.”

Boyle and other Modesto police, along with sheriff’s deputies and Ceres police, met the groups as they arrived at the campus for an assembly geared at engaging these children, grades kindergarten through sixth. It offered relationship building between law enforcement and children who otherwise might not warm up to the officers. Doctors and Memorial medical centers also participated.

Many of the kids walked away bearing gifts, including fluorescent items they can attach to their backpacks to be more visible to cars when the visibility is poor in the early mornings, late afternoons or when it’s raining.

Like any other event, the difficult part with kids is having them employ what they’ve used on a daily basis. Picnics, parties and assemblies are fun, but they can’t happen every day. Encouraging parents to walk with their children to school and employ the Walking School Bus concept, though, is something they can do. Having some kind of event each month will help maintain the focus, Contreras said.

“It’s a way of getting the parents out walking and socializing,” Contreras said.

Dawn Milotte has daughters in fourth and second grades at Tuolumne. Until now, she’s refused to allow them to walk a mile from home to the school, even though she walked to school growing up in Washington. Now, she’s more willing.

“They thought it was really awesome the teachers were meeting with them to walk to school,” Milotte said. “As soon as they saw the principal, they were excited.”

It’s all part of being able to walk to school as a kid, and have fond memories to show for it.

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