It took coordination and cooperation among Hillside Elementary School, the Schenectady County Traffic Safety Program and Cornell Cooperative Extension, Schenectady County (CCE,SC) to organize a successful pedestrian safety program at Hillside Elementary in Niskayuna, NY.
Rebecca Cigal, the community education associate at Hillside Elementary, first heard of Safe Routes to School (SRTS) at a focus group conducted by the community education department in spring 2007, and she said she thought it would be a good project for her position.
It wasn’t until the following school year, however, that Cigal began implementing SRTS events.
“I found out about International Walk to School Day in October about two weeks before,” she said. “I worked really hard, and, actually, it didn’t take much to get hold of the county traffic safety coordinator.”
From there, the two leaders joined with the CCE,SC Eat Well Play Hard Project, a program designed to help prevent childhood obesity.
The three teammates planned the first Hillside Elementary Walk to School Day in October 2007. Of the more than 300 students in grades kindergarten through fifth who attend Hillside Elementary, Cigal said almost 125 students and parents walked to school that day.
“The principal made sure that the teachers and staff were outside of the school and really supported the program by being outside and welcoming them,” Cigal said.
About 30 percent of the students live within walking distance of the school, but in Niskayuna, the bus policy states that all children are eligible for busing—regardless of how close they live to the school.
Results from surveys distributed to the parents revealed that the lack of sidewalks prevented some parents from allowing their children to walk to school unsupervised.
“I don’t blame the parents,” Cigal said. “That was the number one concern, really, physical safety.”
Because the parents were comfortable with supervised walks to school, in March 2008, Cigal and her teammates started planning a month long Walking School Bus program for the month of May.
The team met frequently with the district to discuss the importance of students walking to school. With support from the County Traffic Safety Program, the Niskayuna Police Department and Eat Well Play Hard Project, the month long Walking School Bus program for Hillside Elementary was approved.
The County Traffic Safety Program and CCE,SC used their resources to fund the program with drawstring backpacks, safety blinkers, reflective tags and printed materials.
The Walking School Bus program took place on four Wednesdays during the month of May. Cigal said she and her teammates coordinated 10 routes with 20 parent, faculty and staff volunteers, who were “drivers” for each Walking School Bus route.
The route usually started at the homes of “drivers,” and as they walked to Hillside Elementary, they picked up students waiting for them at nearby street corners.
For the most part, the routes were no longer than one mile.
And for those students who lived outside of walking distance, Cigal said there were “drop stops,” which were designated areas where parents could drop off their children. From this spot, a volunteer would walk with the children to school.
By the end of the month, the participation rate was 68 students, which was 20 percent of the student body, and Cigal said the participant response was positive.
“People have asked us if we are going to continue this in the fall,” Cigal said.
There are plans for the school to participate in Walk to School Day in October, and Cigal said she hopes to implement a Walking School Bus with the district’s support.
Cigal said her team is looking to work with a local organization for grant money to install sidewalks near the school. There also is a Niskayuna SRTS committee that helps schools to apply for infrastructure grants.
Ultimately, Cigal said, it is important for motorists and pedestrians to work together to create a safe community.
“That would be the long-term goal,” Cigal said. “Pedestrian and motorized vehicle harmony.”