Walking to school may seem like an unfortunate casualty of the San Francisco Unified School District’s school assignment system, which aims to desegregate schools by prioritizing diversity over proximity when placing students. But as the school district launches its Safe Routes to School program tomorrow in conjunction with Walk to School Day, there is hope that schools could significantly increase walking and bicycling to and from school even with the dispersed student bodies most schools have.
Compared to other areas, like Marin County, where the Safe Routes to Schools program originated in 2000, San Francisco has unique challenges, said Ana Validzic, who coordinates the Safe Routes to School program for the San Francisco Department of Public Health. "We’re much more urban and we’re very diverse, and one of the things that people struggle with is the school assignment system," said Validzic. "When they hear about the school assignment system, they sort of just shut down and think that we cannot promote walking and biking because children may not be assigned to a school within walking distance."
While San Francisco doesn’t have neighborhood schools designed to draw primarily from within a mile or two radius, most of its schools still do have a significant percentage of students who live nearby. Walking or biking might not work for everyone, but "it’s reasonable to ask at least some students to walk and bike," said Validzic.
The five San Francisco schools participating in the Safe Routes to School program this year – Bryant in the Mission District, George Washington Carver in Bayview, Longfellow in the Excelsior, Sunnyside, and Sunset – were chosen because each has a majority of students who live within a mile from school.
Officials from all of the partner organizations coordinating Safe Routes to School hope the program will succeed in reducing congestion and pollution, and increasing physical activity. "The Safe Routes to Schools program teaches students and parents about how easy it can be to save our earth by reducing pollution," said Phyllis Matsuno, Principal of Longfellow Elementary School. "We’re thrilled that Longfellow was selected to participate in this program, it’ll help us promote healthy, active and attentive students."
Walk to School Day has become a popular event at schools in San Francisco, regionally, and beyond, but with the two-year, federally-funded $500,000 Safe Routes to School grant, SFUSD aims to institutionalize and coordinate programs that promote walking. The grant is about "pulling together different programs that everyone already does in San Francisco, and to try to tighten them up and add in a more comprehensive approach," said Jason Serafino-Agar, the SFBC’s Safe Routes to School program coordinator.
The program will start with five schools this year, expanding to fifteen next year, and is based on the "five Es": education, encouragement, engineering, evaluation and enforcement.
The education component will include classes for second graders on pedestrian safety, classes for fourth graders on bicycle safety, walk and bike maps for each school, and traffic safety information packets for drivers near the participating schools. On the enforcement end, SFPD will be doing targeted enforcement near the schools. There will be walk and bike audits to identify infrastructure shortcomings that need to be addressed, and officials will collect and analyze data on how schoolchildren get to and from school, and on parents’ attitudes and knowledge about walking and biking.
To launch Safe Routes to School in the city and mark Walk to School Day, parents and students will be forming a "walking school bus" at the McDonald’s parking lot at 5454 Mission Street tomorrow, departing at 8:10 a.m. and arriving at Longfellow Elementary School ten minutes later. At 8:40, a special morning outdoor rally will be held at Longfellow, with Supervisor John Avalos, Safe Routes to School coordinators, parents, kids who walked or biked to school and school administrators.
"It’s exciting that we get to work to change the habits of a generation," said Serafino-Agar, "to show them what’s possible and support them in the choices that they can make."