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AHA improves the health and well-being of Wake County residents by facilitating and supporting community initiatives.

Laying the Groundwork for Safe Routes to School at Laurel Park Elementary

This Walking School Bus is headed from Apex Community Park to Laurel Park Elementary on Oct. 8, International Walk to School Day.

This Walking School Bus is headed from Apex Community Park to Laurel Park Elementary on Oct. 8, International Walk to School Day.

Low-hanging fruit. That’s the goal for success in the new ongoing walking program at Laurel Park Elementary (LPE) in Apex, according to Amy Sackaroff, parent of a first and third grader at the school and an environmental planner.

In the interest of getting students moving, LPE used the Oct. 8 International Walk to School Day as an opportunity to promote its ongoing Walk to School program, which has a two-pronged approach. “Students who live in nearby neighborhoods can participate in Walking School Buses, led by parent volunteers.  And, students who participate in carpool or who cannot safely walk from home can park and ‘ride’ a walking school bus from the Apex Community Park, which is just a .3-mile, 6-minute walk to school,” Sackaroff said.

Behind the Scenes: Laying the Groundwork for Success

Walk to School Day and the new ongoing program is the result of serious attention administrators and parent volunteers are putting towards infrastructure improvements that make it safer and more feasible for students to walk to school.

“Laurel Park has a culture of wellness, and a lot of things the school does embody that. The walking program was an extension of wellness efforts,” Sackaroff said.  Plus, with a growing school population and more residential development nearby, carpool hours will only become more congested as time goes on.  As such, Principal Burt Batten proactively asked staff to work on a Walk to School Program.  “We knew there would be some safety obstacles to make this happen,” she said.

Sackaroff joined forces with school staff and reached out to the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) and Town of Cary and Town of Apex planners last spring to talk about some barriers. “We have a lot of people in a neighborhood across the street from the school who want to walk, but say that they don’t feel safe walking during carpool hours.  The pavement is very wide through this area and there are no striped mid-block crosswalks or other visual cues to let drivers know that it’s an active pedestrian corridor as well,” Sackaroff said.  “Of course we have standard school zone flashers/signs and pavement markings, but additional infrastructure is needed to provide safe passage for pedestrians to cross the street.”

As a result of her outreach, the Town of Cary painted a crosswalk at the school’s driveway, and the Town of Apex is pursuing grant funding for a mid-block crosswalk on the busy street in front of the school. Sackaroff also noted the outreach opened the door for participation in a local grant application to reduce pedestrian injury and accident by increase safe routes to school. “Fingers are crossed that we will be identified as a target school for that work,” she said.

Resources for Schools

While many schools in Wake County will not be as fortunate to have a planner among the parent population, Sackaroff said there are plenty of resources out there to help schools make inroads.

Walking school bus stop near Laurel Park Elementary

Walking school bus stop near Laurel Park Elementary

“I suggest schools reach out to their municipal planners to get on their radar as they are moving forward with their bike/pedestrian planning efforts.   Plus, I had several lengthy conversations with Ed Johnson of the NC Department of Transportation’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Division.  I got a lot of ideas from him for our ongoing walking program.” Sackaroff said. “His best advice, however, was to start small and build slowly.  That’s a really good reminder for me.  We’re all so results-driven, but this kind of change, particularly involving infrastructure, takes time.”

Sackaroff also suggested contacting the Active Routes to School Project coordinator, which here in Wake County, is Jennifer Delcourt for Region 5. Through this contact, LPE learned of the opportunity to collect data from parents about walking to school (such as what affects their decision to walk or bike) and have the National Center for Safe Routes to School provide a customized report for the school. “We’re trying to get some baseline information and learn from it, and the data also might be useful for us to seek grants or other funding for infrastructure improvements,” she said.

The Long View

“So I remind myself that it’s the long view that matters here and that we are on a trajectory and making progress,” Sackaroff continue.  “I have to use carpool in the afternoons because of my works schedule, so I appreciate the difficulty of trying to change things up.  There are so many constraints on parents – working in something new can be a real logistical challenge.  So for me, focusing on infrastructure and connectivity for nearby neighborhoods is the low-hanging fruit.  For now, it’s easier to get them walking than to get us out of our carpool routines.”

Sackaroff said she hopes that as people in the carpool line see more students walking, it will be a little advertisement for that opportunity to actively getting to and from school.  As the program continues, she hopes more families will participate in the Park and Ride option from Apex Community Park and other ongoing Walking Program activities.

In fliers, email newsletters, the PTA’s Facebook page and signage inside and outside the school, LPE is promoting the Walking Program. Sackaroff said that she incorporated the detail of .3 mile or 6 minute walk from the nearby park as a way to encourage students walking and getting some activity in, but also point out that it’s just not that far, to encourage those on a tighter schedule to think about it more.

These are some of the materials student walkers received on International Walk to School Day earlier this month.

These are some of the materials student walkers received on International Walk to School Day earlier this month.

Principal Batten has also invited Sackaroff to share Let’s Go NC!  materials and videos with staff and students.  Let’s Go NC! is a turnkey pedestrian/bicycle safety education program for grades K-5 that is endorsed by the NC Department of Public Instruction.  They will explore how teachers can integrate this into their classroom instruction. LPE also plans to participate in Bike to School Day next spring, and will have a bike safety clinic through Bike Smart-Grow Smart as preparation for it.

National Walk and Bike to School Successes

This CNN story from last week highlights the need for and the benefits of walking school buses, and this story on “pop up” temporary bike lanes at a New Jersey school to show what could be possible for active transportation is a good primer. Learn from People for Bikes how to plan a temporary bike lane and examples from across the nation this past summer.

AHA Wellness Star Award

Laurel Park is one of six schools that won AHA’s inaugural Wellness Star award last April for outstanding and ongoing walk/bike to school programs. Elementary, middle and high schools across Wake County are invited to apply for this year’s award. The deadline is next March, and details are on AHA’s website.

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