The Hillside Learning and Behavior Center in the Allegan-area ESA School District serves 93 students with disabilities from seven local school districts. Students range in age from pre-kindergarten to 26 years old.
Hillside students walk to downtown Allegan because it serves as a classroom for them to practice life skills. The town has a population of about 5,000 and is located in a valley. Hillside is within walking distance of an intersection of three state highways, and students have to cross a minimum of two street roadways, according to Darrell Harden, transportation planner, Southwest Region of the Michigan Department of Transportation. In addition, the route to the intersection is downhill.
School officials supported SRTS initiatives, and guidelines for modifying the program to accommodate students with disabilities were developed. For guidance, they consulted Michigan Fitness Foundation staff and the state SRTS coordinator. Harden believes it is important for communities to have that access to technical assistance and expertise, particularly with the challenges that come with limited resources. “I used to work in local government,” he said. “I know what local government budgets look like.”
Staff had to brainstorm to address Hillside’s unique challenges and to objectively view how they were delivering services. They formed an action team that includes parents of a young student and of an older student, a city council member, the city public works director, the city manager, a police officer, the principal and members of the community at large. They have brought in additional resources, including traffic engineers and MDOT’s pedestrian and bicycle coordinator.
“To make this work for Hillside, the Action Team took a look at, and redefined, the meaning of the trip to school,” Harden said. “For most kids, it's the trip to the school building. While the same is true for Hillside's students, we're also committed to supporting their ‘livability training’- the education they get on things like using the library, buying groceries, and the like. They walk or roll to downtown Allegan for that training, and we define that as the trip to school. Rather than make the school fit the program, we made the program fit the school.”
Harden said that the SRTS program managers at MDOT and the Michigan Fitness Foundation embraced this approach, and that the Federal Highway Administration–Michigan Division concurred.
They modified SRTS surveys in order to “think outside the box” to meet the unique needs of this population. Principal Robin Melvin suggested specific revisions to the survey based on her experience working with students with disabilities. For example, a 26-year-old may be in third grade, and the Action Team didn’t want to stigmatize a student, so they removed the age/grade distinctions. They surveyed parents, teachers, students and paraprofessionals who walk the routes with the students. “They’re able to discuss their challenges and student challenges along the street,” he said.
The Action Team conducted two walking audits, the first without students, and the second with approximately 50 students, who were divided into groups that included Action Team members.
“They caught things we didn’t,” Harden said. “They knew what they were looking for. We ended up with a better action plan as a result of the students’ participating.”
The city is replacing sidewalks during a water main project, and they're permitted to restore sidewalks according to their previous specifications. Hillside’s SRTS Action Team requested SRTS funding to increase the width of the sidewalks to accommodate students with disabilities and wheelchairs and staff people.
The City has committed to enforcing ordinances to keep sidewalks clear of people’s overgrown hedges and other barriers. The Action Team and City will be working to make people aware of walking students.
As a result of the walk audits and other SRTS action team efforts, enforcement was increased at one intersection, and students now take a new, modified route to avoid another intersection. Students are more visible because they wear reflective vests, paid for with funds from a mini-grant awarded by Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Michigan.
In summer 2010, MDOT awarded Hillside a $22,500 SRTS grant to install mobility learning resources, including mock intersection paths on the school grounds that will replicate city streets and sidewalks. The paths will provide a safe environment for students with disabilities to practice crossing streets and learn how to use traffic signals, pavement markings, handicap-accessible sidewalk ramps and other enhancements required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The focus is on helping students develop the confidence to become more mobile, and encouraging them to travel safely to and from school and throughout the community.
"MDOT and the Michigan Fitness Foundation have high expectations that these Safe Routes to School grants will help children with disabilities in Michigan," said State Transportation Director Kirk T. Steudle. "Resolving issues that prevent children with disabilities from participating in programs designed to increase their mobility will benefit not only students, but also their parents, teachers, schools and communities as well."
In July 2011, MDOT awarded federal SRTS funds to Hillside, which will partner with the city of Allegan to install sidewalks on several streets and rectangular rapid flashing beacons on one street, and to hold a community safety event. The project budget is $369,272.
"Students with disabilities will have an opportunity to learn pedestrian safety skills as part of their educational training as a result of the Safe Routes program,” said Hillside Principal Robin Melvin. “It is exciting to have everyone working together to make our community safer and more walkable."
Hillside also recently held its first Walk to School Day.
“One of the things we've acknowledged is that we may not be able to make every single intersection as decked out as we'd like,” Harden said. “For example, we can't install rectangular rapid flashing beacons at every crosswalk; that would be cost-prohibitive, and the number of signals would dilute the effect. So, we've worked to identify designated routes that should be used whenever possible. This enables us to maximize the effect by letting us focus on key routes, while also ensuring student safety. The principal of the school is a key member of the action team, so this work has included her input and guidance to ensure that student needs are met first and foremost.”
Transportation Planner, Southwest Region of the Michigan Department of Transportation