Safe Routes to School, Taking the First Step

Story by Jeannie Stone

Teachers, parents and even the principal of London Elementary School are hopping on their bikes and lacing up their tennis shoes. The purpose? To show support for alternative forms of transportation which are kind to both Mother Earth and to the physical well-being of their students.

Principal Tami Chandler, physical education teacher Pam Huggins, counselor Kathy Steffy, 4th grade teacher Teresa Parker, kindergarten teacher Jackie Frye and parents Cindy Noble and Julie Scott completed a nine-hour course followed by a written exam to become Road One Bike Educators certified through the League of American Cyclists.

The training was made possible by a Safe Routes to School grant awarded by the Ark. State Highway Department and requested by the London Economic Development Committee.

“They are always seeking grants for the city and ways to improve life for our citizens,” Chandler said. “There has always been a really strong partnership between the city of London and the school. After all, the school is truly the center of this community.”

Safe Routes to School is an international movement that has taken hold in communities throughout the United States. The concept is to increase the number of children who walk or bicycle to school by funding projects that remove the barriers that currently prevent them from doing so.

Those barriers include lack of infrastructure, unsafe infrastructure and lack of programs that promote walking and bicycling through education/encouragement programs aimed at children, parents, and the community.

“Part of our first step, when school begins, is to conduct surveys to identify where our kids are coming from. We know some live way out in the country and some live in town but would have to cross a highway to get to school. We are developing different strategies to allow everyone to participate,” Chandler added.

Along with bicycle education for safety’s sake, attention will be given to the health benefits of regular exercise and the environmental virtues of manual transportation. A school-wide curriculum reflecting these goals has been added to this year’s academic framework.

In the planning is a volunteer crossing guard program, to ease the risks of crossing Highways 64 and 333, and fun community family events to draw community awareness and participation.

The Road One course itself was created to teach the teachers to promote bike safety. Issues covered in the training included foul weather safety concerns, pedestrian safety, traffic laws, intersection dangers, highway awareness and communicating with drivers.

“We have to take time to signal to drivers what our intentions are,” bike instructor Willa Williams said. “That is the only way we can communicate.”

Williams is a bicycle enthusiast who mentors community groups around the state through the U of A Cooperative Extension outreach.

“They have done an exceptional job, in London, of coordinating the community and planning the steps to enrich not just their students’ minds but their health as well. Studies show that early introduction to healthy pursuits increases the chance for developing lifelong habits.”

Proof of the existing support for healthy lifestyles is the recent paved trail which links the school track with the city park providing an uninterrupted half-mile loop. The school already awards key fobs and trinkets as incentives for lap completions.

The great kick-off event is scheduled for October 8th, also known as National Walk to School Day. The Wednesdays following will be known as Walking Wednesdays, and students will be encouraged to meet up with the certified teachers and volunteers at designated “bus stops.” These ‘walking school buses’ will safely deliver the students to school.

Accommodations are already in the works for students who ride buses of the yellow variety.

“We are going to try and have stops for the buses to unload the elementary students, so they can be involved too,” Chandler said. “And we will certainly have groups that cross the highways together.”

Walking will be the focus of the fall semester, and bicycling will take the stage in the spring. A bike rodeo is on the drawing board.

“I always thought of riding as being just a hobby, you know, something fun. But a bike can be way more than a toy,” Chandler said.

“I ride whenever I can,” Frye added.

According to Chandler, around 160 students have been identified who live within walking or riding distance to the school.

The London Economic Development Committee has submitted for an additional grant to shore up the infrastructure in the community. The requested resources include flashing lights to slow traffic on Highway 64 and sidewalks.

“It’s more difficult for us to teach bike safety in London because we lack so much infrastructure,” Huggins said.

“Bike riding is more common in big cities where they have the necessary safety equipment,” Chandler added.

Still, the community of London has come a long way in addressing the barriers which have prevented healthy transportation alternatives. “The London community deserves to be a showcase to other communities in the state,” Williams said. “Just look at all the good things a few dedicated people can create.”

As students, teachers and parents enter London Elementary School, they pass a memorial garden with a large rock featuring the name of a former student, Nick Maurseth.

It bears testament to a sobering reality in the history of the close-knit community. Nicholas Harris Maurseth was a first grader who lost his life while riding his bike to school ten years ago.

Maurseth was attempted to jump a ditch when his bike bounced unto the highway and was hit. He was survived by his parents, Leland Wayne Maurseth, Sr. and Sherry White and brothers Leland Wayne Maurseth, Jr. and Mathew Maurseth, all from London and a half brother Kenny Lee Maurseth of Arizona.

Ten years is not that long ago, and most adults remember when the accident occurred. “Has it been 10 years?” they say.

It is surely a comfort to the Maurseth family that the community of London is taking strong measures to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.

In the upper right hand corner of the rock is Nick’s name copied from his original handwriting. He wrote in print. He was only in first grade.

“The more cyclists on the road, the more we increase driver awareness,” Willa Williams, U of A bicycling educator said. “The best thing we can do in Nick’s memory to educate.

 

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