Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Fewer students walking to school due to safety issues

Crosswalks at Kitty Stone Elementary in Jacksonville haven't had crossing guards since 2004. Photo: Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star

On school mornings, Kim Craven brings her children to her husband's office in downtown Jacksonville. Her husband walks them across the Public Square and down the street to Kitty Stone Elementary School.

The children are only allowed to walk if their father walks with them, because it isn't safe for them to cross the square alone, Craven said.

But Craven's three daughters — a 10-year-old and 7-year-old twins — "just enjoy getting up and going," she said.

They are one of the few area families whose children walk to school; most take the bus, get rides from parents, or drive themselves if they're old enough.

The number of kids who walk or bike to school is dwindling nationally. About 35 percent of American children live within a mile of their schools, but only 48 percent of those children walk or bike to school at least once a week, according to a study published in this month's issue of the American Journal of Preventative Medicine. That number is even lower in the South, where only about 36 percent of those living within a mile of their schools walk or bike there.

More locally, the number is likely lower still.

"We don't have many walkers at all. I would say less than one percent," said Wayne Caldwell, transportation supervisor for the Oxford school system. About 60 percent of Oxford public school students — few of whom live within a mile radius of their schools, Caldwell said — take the bus to school, while most of the remaining 40 percent are driven to school by their parents.

The situation in other school districts is similar. Kevin Brooks, transportation director for the Cleburne County school system, said there might be some walkers among those students who live close to the three county schools in Heflin. Otherwise, though, he knows of no students who walk or bike to school, and the county has obtained a waiver that allows buses to pick up students who live within a two-mile radius of the school.

In Jacksonville, according to Superintendent Eric Mackey, fewer than 50 students in kindergarten through 12th grade walk to school.

"We keep bike racks, but there's rarely ever anything in them," Mackey said.

Mackey said Kitty Stone Elementary hasn't had a crossing guard since 2004, and other area schools said they did not employ crossing guards, though police officers sometimes direct traffic at the beginning and end of the school day.

School officials and parents cite safety as the reason there are so few walkers and bikers traveling to and from area schools every day.

"Even though there's a lot of push in the urban renewal sort of thinking to get kids to walk to school again, and it's obviously good for your health to walk, we do not push it because we have very few sidewalks in Jacksonville," Mackey said.

The Jacksonville school system adopted busing in 1998, in part because the lack of sidewalks meant students who walked to school were walking in the streets, Mackey said.

Kitty Stone requires students who plan to walk home — or elsewhere, such as to an after-school program — to bring notes from their parents and to wait in the school library until the buses and cars outside have left, said Christy Pye, librarian at Kitty Stone.

Brooks said he worries about the children who walk home from school in Heflin because their routes home take them through the paths of buses and cars also transporting students home.

Debbie Fancher, who said her children could walk to school from their Oxford home in under 10 minutes, used to walk with them to school. But she doesn't think it's safe for them to walk to school by themselves.

"There's really no place to walk. It's either walk in the road or walk in a ditch."

Students who walk or bike to school are likely to be more physically active than other kids and are more likely to meet national recommendations for youth physical activity, the authors of the Preventative Medicine study wrote.

Mackey said his school system tries to encourage physical activity for students in other ways. The state requires half-hour physical education classes for students in kindergarten through eighth grade, but Jacksonville students have 50-minute physical education classes from kindergarten through sixth grade and hour-long classes in seventh and eighth grades.

The days of children being able to walk to school are gone, Mackey said. "We're not going back to that. So we have to look at other outlets for kids to get some outside physical activity."

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