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McKinley parents lead 'walking school bus' initiative

March 7, 2012

Ensuring children make it safely to and from school has become an increasing concern.

Last fall, an impatient motorist struck a child crossing Wauwatosa Avenue - resulting in a broken leg - even with a crossing guard stationed there. Little more than a week ago, 12-year-old Joey Kramer was killed by a train when he crossed the railroad tracks at 68th and State streets on the way to Longfellow Middle School.

These incidents make a safety program led by McKinley Elementary School parents and the grant they received to expand it all the more relevant and urgent, organizers said.

McKinley's Safe Routes to School program received a $1,000 grant to expand its "walking school bus" initiative. Children meet at a designated spot in their neighborhood and walk to school together under the guidance of one or two parents.

Four routes starting off

Twenty-five children participate through four routes, with two groups walking to school together each weekday and two meeting three days a week for an early orchestra class on the other days, said parent Sarah Lerand, chairwoman of the program.

"We're definitely a lot more visible in a bigger group," she said.

With so many parents working and a desire to demonstrate that safety is a community issue, the Safe Routes group hopes to recruit volunteers to lead additional routes, starting with a six-week trial in April and May. Grant money will be used to train volunteers from the community in late March and suit them with reflective vests.

"They would each have a route, no more than a mile," Lerand said.

She hopes to tap the neighborhood associations and neighboring colleges to get volunteers, touting the regular exercise and community involvement. If it goes well, the routes would continue in fall.

Anyone who is interested would undergo a background check, Lerand said.

McKinley Principal Mark Carter credits the parents for their tenacity. With their continued push, more people will get involved and there will be a noticeable difference in people's habits, he said.

"It's new and people are going to wait to see how safe it is," he said. "It's changing a mind-set."

Lessening traffic congestion

The more children involved, the fewer parents who will need to drive them to school and cause traffic congestion around the school, Carter said.

Many of the students must cross busy North Avenue.

"There is not a lot of safe driving going on there," he said. "You definitely don't see people following the rules of the road."

Parent Hannah Harris chaperones a walking school bus that steps off from Beverly Place. Her two sons are among the line of children.

"It allows kids to exercise more, which helps them concentrate better during the school day," she said. "It's social, it's fun and as a bonus, it's good for the environment."

She knows of one father who drops off his two girls at the bus stop before heading to work because it's convenient. He doesn't have to deal with the stress of navigating the school zone in the morning, Harris said.

Hoping to expand

Not only do organizers want to expand the program to include more McKinley students, but they're hoping other schools will start their own walking school buses. Lerand recently met with the Roosevelt Parent-Teacher Association and the group is working on an end-of-the-semester presentation for the School Board to show how it could be duplicated.

"There's a broader vision here," she said.

The walking school bus becomes most important when crossing busy intersections such as Swan Boulevard and North Avenue, and 90th Street and Harding Boulevard. However, even the conspicuous group can go unnoticed by drivers who zone out on their way to work in the morning or when bad weather reduces visibility.

With that in mind, grant dollars were used to purchase lighted hand paddles for crossing guards stationed at those intersections. Instead of a simple red stop sign, the lights flash when the guard raises his or her hands.

At a glance

WHAT: The McKinley Elementary School Safe Routes to School program is looking for community volunteers to lead children in a walking school bus.

WHEN: weekday mornings in April and May

WHERE: Routes will be 1 mile or less within the McKinley school boundaries

WHO: program chairwoman Sarah Lerand, sjlerand@yahoo.com

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