Together, the city of Murray and the Murray Independent School District are working to make the way to school safer for children. The city led efforts to seek Federal Safe Routes to School funding for sidewalks, and surrounding schools are following up with education and encouragement. The city has about 16,000 people and is located within a county of about 34,000. The middle school, which houses grades 4 to 8, is in the center of town, according to Eleanor Spry, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction.
For those students who are in grades 1 to 3, parents generally walk with their students, Spry says. The district doesn’t receive funding for providing busing to students who live within a mile of school. Area schools lacked any sidewalks immediately around them. “The big picture: we’ve got traffic issues,” explains Matt Mattingly, Director of Administration for the City of Murray. The city recognized that there would be many benefits from increased walking, he said. For example, if the students felt safe to walk, it could reduce traffic congestion around the schools. Additionally, walking to school “promotes being healthy.”
In the Calloway County schools just outside city limits, schools had a policy prohibiting walking and bicycling to school because sidewalks did not exist, and it was not safe to walk. The City approached the school officials and offered to build sidewalks if the school system would change the policy. Due to the high cost of construction, school officials had assumed the sidewalks could never be built, however, Mattingly had attended a statewide SRTS training session and learned what it takes to help the program succeed. He needed a champion, he learned, and says, “I went back to both school systems and told them the city would do it, but they needed some dedicated individuals.”
For three different fiscal years from 2006 to 2008, Murray was awarded $522,800 for both infrastructure and non-infrastructure SRTS projects from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, according to Kentucky’s SRTS Coordinator Jackie Jones, who explained that the state uses one form for both types of projects. The city has contributed $56,718 to SRTS efforts, and the Murray Independent School District added $500 for noninfrastructure projects at the elementary and middle schools. The City budgets $50,000 each year for sidewalks, and the SRTS grant enabled much more sidewalk construction to be completed. “It’s an awesome program,” Mattingly says.
Murray has been participating in SRTS for three years: for two years with both city schools and most recently with the Calloway County schools. The city and school systems each have utilized their strengths to implement Safe Routes to School. The city has handled the infrastructure improvements. Meanwhile, the schools have taken on the education and encouragement efforts for students, parents and the community. Murray police officers provided the training for school crossing guards.
Murray has hired contractors to handle project construction, and to reduce costs, the city oversees the work and maintains the infrastructure once it is completed. For the first project, teachers surveyed routes near the school to observe the challenges students would face if they tried to walk. In addition, physical education teachers coordinated the first Walk to School Day event in October 2008. Police and fire officers helped with traffic and safety during those events. The community benefits from the sidewalks are widespread and visible. “Every time I drive down the street, there are people on the sidewalks, people pulling wagons on the sidewalks, people walking their dogs,” Spry says. “We’re seeing more bicycles in our racks” at the middle school.
The SRTS efforts have resulted in construction of 15,960 feet of sidewalks, including a recently completed sidewalk from the county middle school to a low income housing area. “We’re filling in the gaps,” Mattingly says. “There’s a real need for sidewalks. This money gave us a big boost.” Mattingly estimates that walking participation has increased 25 percent, and approximately 100 children walk regularly, with participation totals tripling on “International Walk to School” days. Physical education teachers are teaching about pedestrian safety, crosswalks and the health benefits of walking, Spry says. Schools have established encouragement programs that count steps students take and track these steps for small rewards. Teachers bicycle to school and also park and walk to school in order to be visible examples of pedestrian and bicycle activity for students. Another benefit has been parents who enjoy walking, and they have told Spry that it gives them a chance to meet and talk to other families. The walk to and from school also offers another good way to spend time with their children. In years past family time was spent by eating family meals together, Spry notes. “We’ve gone from eating together to exercising together.” Mattingly said the city is working with Murray State University to create a bike plan for the city as well as a walkability plan, which will begin with a needs assessment. “We are glad we dreamt big,” Spry says.
Director of Administration for the City of Murray
Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction for Murray Independent School District