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When it comes to getting kids to school, is there a better way?

Pickup time at Nova Classical Academy
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
Pickup time at Nova Classical Academy in St. Paul.

You never forget the first time you encounter the chaos of a school pick-up zone. The line of SUVs poised like predators, waiting to speed away once they’ve acquired their kids, while giant yellow buses rumble past. Because of synchronized school times, it all happens in about a half an hour, and before you know it, the gnarl of traffic is nothing but a memory.

Or, that’s how it’s supposed to work. Often in practice, the pick-up and drop-off routine can be an extreme disruption.

“People line up 45 minutes before school lets out and let their cars idle,” said Ashley Shelby, whose daughter attends an elementary school in the Minnetonka school district. “It’s awful, [there’s] so much exhaust, and so much CO2, especially right near the school entrance. My pleas to the principal go unheard.”

In an era when more and more parents are driving their kids to school — because of inconvenience or the long distances involved with school choice — concerns like these are growing more common for parents. Often, parents driving kids become their own worst enemy. The more impatient people become, the more dangerously they are likely to drive, and the worse it gets for the kids on foot, and the fewer kids might walk. Thus the vicious cycle of kid-schlepping.

To try and stem the tide of cars, there are efforts underway across Twin Cities school districts to ensure safety and increase the percentage of kids who are walking or biking or  taking transit to school. This week marks the official Walk to School week, and schools all over the metro will be focusing on how to solve the kid commuter riddle.

Trying to boost safety

Because of their low profiles, kids are especially vulnerable to speeding traffic, and in a country where the majority of new cars are high-bumpered SUVs or trucks, that becomes doubly dangerous around school areas. In Minneapolis, the Public Works Department maintains a four-year schedule where they consult and check-in with the city’s 100 plus schools, trying to unearth any infrastructure or signage changes that might improve safety.

“Out of this program we install addition school crosswalks depending on school patrol locations,” explained Steve Mosing, a Traffic Operations Engineer for Public Works.  “Through a more robust program with some capital funding, we installed yellow flashing beacon signs, and painted crosswalks to indicate where we want kids to cross.”

Mosing points out that changes to earlier school start times have been a challenge this year. Students and parents have shifted their travel patterns, causing different safety concerns around area schools.

The process is complicated from the school’s side of the picture, too. At each school, administrators work constantly with parents and students to make sure that everyone knows the safest thing to do during the intense departure and arrival times.

“Arrival and departure is always a work in progress,” said Jennifer Bordon, the Active Living Coordinator for Minneapolis Public Schools. “Schools are continually communicating with their community what their procedures are, and what is helpful. Sometimes we get off to a great start, but have to remind people when unsafe habits might start again.”

That sometimes means staff patrol the sidewalks of schools, waving arms at parents and kids, shepherding the buses and SUVs along their way. According to Bordon, the basic principles of school safety are ones of separation and reducing speed. The best schools are designed to separating buses far from any idling or speeding cars, ensure kids on foot or bike are safe amid the swirl of large vehicles.

The new bus lot in Richfield 

Some schools are better than others when it comes to safe designs. One big challenge is any school located on streets that are already dealing with traffic and speed issues. This was the case in Richfield, where a pair of magnet schools sit on busy streets like 70th Street and 12th Avenue.

“It was a significant problem, with fairly significant safety risks for how it was playing out,” said Crystal Brakke, the chair of the Richfield School Board. “[They are relatively busy streets], and they were affecting people who lived nearby, on their way to work. We needed to so something about it.”

After the passage of a referendum that earmarked funding for school safety, the district reconfigured an obsolete swimming pool building this summer into a new school bus area, greatly simplifying pick-up and drop-off procedures. The new system allowed the school to separate the buses from the busy streets, reducing safety concerns and ensuring the elementary kids stay a safe distance away from the speeding cars. But changing to the new system hasn’t been entirely easy.

“This is a big change, and we’re continuing to have to do a lot around training,” explained Brakke. “We have staff members outside every day to let people know about how the new traffic patterns work. We believe it’s significantly safer than allowing pickup and drop-off on the street itself.”

The greater reach of charter schools 

With school choice in place and an ever-increasing proliferation of charter schools throughout the Twin Cities, the percentage of students who are driven or picked up from school greatly increases, making the queue of cars even more extreme. That means that many charters or magnets have to create extra procedures for arrival and departure.

“My youngest goes out-of-district and driving is our only option,” explained Ken Paulman, who lives in West St. Paul. “Parents queue up and have a big card with the kid’s name in the windshield, and the kids are released to cars one at a time. Parents are discouraged from walking up to the door.”

That’s one popular system, but in other schools, elaborate instructions are posted to the websites, along with maps that attempt (sometimes in vain) to control the traffic pressures during peak times.

Yingua Academy

Meanwhile, in Minneapolis, a bus pass program has been in place for years that allows public school students to eschew the yellow school buses altogether. As Bordon explains it, the rules are based on distance from school. Depending on their age, if students live outside of a certain radius, they receive a free bus pass that allows them to take the regular city bus to school. Because of frequency, the bus passes allow more flexibility for young people to get around the city.

“As a a parent too I just really want to raise a generation of walkers and bikers and also transit users,” said Bordon. “For a lot of students, [having options] opens up possibilities. They can get to the library, do leadership before or after school. They don’t have not rely on one-time pickup, and it opens a lot of doors.”

Walking, biking

Despite the sound and fury of the school drop-off rush, not all is lost for those who fondly recollect the day of kids walking to school. A series of federal grants called the Safe Routes to School program have been funding improvements for street crossings, crosswalks and encouragement and education programs aimed at reducing barriers for getting kids out of cars.

“These are a great way to introduce kids to bicycling, as well as teach those of them that might not have ridden a bike before, or have regular access to one,” said Fay Simer, St. Paul’s Pedestrian Safety Advocate. Simer’s department works with schools to increase safety for kids on foot and bicycle. For example, sponsoring programs like “bike rodeos” to teach bicycling basics.

A "bike rodeo" at Phalen Lake Elementary in St. Paul last May.
Courtesy of St. Paul Public Works
A "bike rodeo" at Phalen Lake Elementary in St. Paul last May.
“It’s just a really good entrée for schools too see and understand, and get a flavor of what teaching biking and walking can bring to classrooms,” Simer said.

This week is officially Walk and Bike to School week in the Minneapolis and St. Paul districts, and one-by-one the area’s schools will be trying especially hard to encourage kids and parents to try something other than the car. If they are successful, it would counter long-term trends, but it might also reduce the chaos of the twice-daily routines of schools, kids, and cars.

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by David Lundeen on 10/01/2019 - 11:12 am.

    Parents should have to look no further than their neighborhood school for a quality education. Unfortunately, we’ve decided that those are no longer worth investing in.

    • Submitted by Dana DeMaster on 10/01/2019 - 12:57 pm.

      Unfortunately, it isn’t always that easy. Even if there is a school within walking or busing distance, it often doesn’t coordinate well with child care. For example, my children’s old day care was four blocks from the community school. If my child went to the school both our home and day care were in walking boundaries, having to live more than a mile away for busing. Yet, there was no adult to walk the kids to school. That’s fine for an older child, but for kindergarten or first grade.

      I’ve had friends that moved to be within busing distance of a school, only to find a three or four mile distance took over an hour on a school bus. They didn’t want to have their six year old on a school bus for more than two hours a day so ended up driving.

      My children’s school provides busing to children living more than two miles away from the school but within the city’s boundaries. For families in the one to two mile range, they often end up driving because their elementary aged children can’t walk two miles across a state highway without an adult and adults can’t walk that far because school start and end times do not coincide with work schedules and the time it would take to walk.

      It’s complicated beyond just school choice.

      • Submitted by David Lundeen on 10/01/2019 - 01:07 pm.

        It is very complicated. My point was that I wished politicians emphasized the importance of the neighborhood school, and that they are funded on an equal basis instead of city levies. I know Gov. Walz would like to see this change.

        I have yet to see any substantial research showing that all the new charter schools lower the poorly named “achievement gap.” In functioning countries like Finland, every parent has access to a high quality education their neighborhood school.

      • Submitted by lisa miller on 10/01/2019 - 01:08 pm.

        Except in most city and suburban areas, the schools are less than a mile. I agree, let’s try to get back to neighborhood schools and equitable state funding. Certainly there will be exceptions, but I am seeing a high number of kids going from north Mpls to St. Paul or south Mpls to Eden Prairie or Minnetonka. Other options include parents taking turns walking younger kids to school or doing the carpool.

      • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 10/01/2019 - 04:23 pm.

        When I was about to enter first grade, back in the 1950s, we moved to a new town a couple of weeks before school started. My mother began asking around if there were any other children in the neighborhood who walked the same five blocks to the same school.

        My mother walked me to school the first day (she didn’t drive at the time), talked to the principal, and got me settled in my new classroom. After that, however, I walked with a third grader who stopped by our house every morning. When my brother reached kindergarten age, he joined us on the walk back to school after lunch. (Yes, we walked home for lunch and then back again.)

        A lot of parents might say, “You can’t do that nowadays! There are too many pedophiles and kidnappers!”

        News flash: There were pedophiles and kidnappers in those days, too.

        We were warned never to go anywhere with an adult who wasn’t one of my parents or our own teacher without permission.

        We were warned to run into the house and tell our parents if a car drove up while we were playing outside and the driver asked us to come closer or said he wanted to show us something.

        We were told never to take shortcuts to school through the nearby cemetery. I couldn’t figure out the reason for that rule, but my wordly wise third grade walking companion said, “There’s a man who hides in the cemetery who grabs kids and takes all their clothes off.” I didn’t understand why anyone would want to do that, but I agreed that it was a fate to be avoided, and I obeyed the rule.

        Because of walking home and back for lunch, we got in twenty blocks of walking every weekday, plus 15 minutes of recess, morning and afternoon. Not surprisingly, my class pictures show mostly slender children with a very few who could be described as slightly chubby. I don’t remember any kids who were hyperactive in class, but I do remember some who ran instead of walked to school and back or who spent their recess periods in frenetic activity.

        It is community planning malpractice to place schools (or senior apartments or community facilities) in locations where the only way to reach them is by car.

        People who have grown up in the typical American suburb are so accustomed to driving everywhere that they don’t even notice how unusual their lifestyle by historical and global standards, but what does it do to children to be dependent on needing a ride from an adult to do ANYTHING outside the home or to a senior who is no longer physically able to drive and is dependent on the senior center’s occasional van trips to go ANYWHERE off the property?

  2. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 10/01/2019 - 11:34 am.

    Just #bancars within maybe two blocks of school. Unless you’re a school bus or someone with a disability permit, you cannot enter the zone by vehicle during school start / end time windows.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/02/2019 - 09:26 am.

    Yet another manifestation of neoliberal marketeeting pretending to be a policy solution. Instead of fixing, maintaining, and improving one of the best public school systems in the world- we decided to turn our education system into a “market” with “choice” and charters. This creates a transportation “problem” that had long since been settled with big yellow buses that take kids to the school’s front door.

    Add the manufactured market complexity of choice and charter, modern parental anxieties that keep kids from walking or biking to school and wham… you have lines of SUV’s backed up for blocks trying to drop off and pick up their kids.

    Is there a better way? Duh. We used to call them “public schools” and the idea was to make sure that every public school anyone attended was the best school we could provide, regardless of location. Then you provide transit to those schools. Seems like common sense eh?

  4. Submitted by susan svatek on 10/02/2019 - 10:04 am.

    Public transit for student s is an issue as well. The east lake street metro transit bus stops between 39th ave and Cedar ave (between the hours of 3-4pm on weekdays) are overwhelmed with students from Hiawatha Leadership Academy and South High School. There are groups of students, numbering in the 40-50 range waiting for a Lake Street bus to go home. The buses are packed and metro transit does not seem to have added extra buses to accommodate the huge need for transit for these kids.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/03/2019 - 10:38 am.

      Yeah, I don’t like to pick on MPLS but for all the controversy and the parade of superstar Superintendents they sure make some daft decisions. I know they have perpetual budget crises but switching out yellow buses for Metro-Transit buses is just not a great idea for so many reasons. I just don’t get it.

  5. Submitted by Gerald Abrahamson on 10/02/2019 - 11:41 am.

    Autonomous vehicles can help solve this problem. It is still a ways out in terms of time frame because the technology is still in development, but it would work once the system is running.

  6. Submitted by Britter Ritter on 10/04/2019 - 12:10 am.

    Walk or take a bus. It works just fine.

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