SFUSD Will Launch Safe Routes to School on Walk to School Day Tomorrow

2007.02.jpgWalk to School Day 2007. Photo: SF Walk to School Day

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."

2202278266_cd067e4f86.jpgWalking home from school with company. Flickr photo: Thomas Hawk

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.

Walk to School Day fits into the program’s encouragement component, along with Bike to School Day and the annual ten-week Shape Up SF Walking Challenge.

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."

  • 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.

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    Some claim a significant percentage of San Franciscan’s bike to work. Rob Anderson says a negligible percentage bikes to work. Significant is not a number.

    The school assignment system is tough. “Significant” numbers of people go 0-7 and then go 0-7 on the next go around. If I can’t get one of the 7 closest elementary schools to my house – I have to leave SF, it certainly becomes a “Non-livable-city” at that point.

    So far the problems associated with long distance school commutes have fallen on unsympathetic ears with the majority of the school board. Certainly the problems that the assignment system are supposed to solve cannot be ignored, but the current system takes a city and makes it a de-facto sprawlville.

    Video of the dragstrip that is Eureka St before Alvarado opens up forthcoming.

  • I love my small street, not a lot of traffic. But I am this close to writing at letter to the higher ups at Garfield Elementary school at the top of my street. Those parents driving their kids to school use our “alley” as a cut through and since it is uphill they floor it. I couldn’t count the number of times I have been almost hit.

    In fact just this morning I was leaving on my bike and a parent came whipping around the corner and was upset at me for being on the street. They treat it like a private driveway. Usually one parent with one kid in the back in a huge SUV.

    I’m all for SF looking at ways to make it easier for kids to get to school by walking and biking.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    Would be nice if Sacred Heart & its associates participated. They are the biggest cause of traffic in Pacific Heights.

  • @mikesonn I think you’re past “this close”…go ahead and write the letter. Neighbors in NOPA undertook a lot of suggesting and complaining with a private school, and finally the admin placed a street monitor at the intersection to keep SUVs from blocking the crosswalk. That was an easier “solution” than your drivers speeding up the alley/hill, but the school needs to take some responsibility for a solution as well. go for it. And a few friends joining you to get the message to the motorists wouldnt hurt either.

  • You are right michaelSF. I’m going to look into it. Thanks.

  • The policies of SF Unified are an environmental disaster and aren’t such a success academically, either. Elementary kids should be able to walk to school, period. Their families should experience their school as part of their neighborhood and their community. High school kids should take the bus to school or carpool. No one should be driving their single kid to school alone in an SUV. I’m sorry but this issue makes me see red. A heck of a lot of driving in the mornings in San Francisco is people carting their kids around. It’s madness.

  • Taomom for SFUSD Board!

  • Nick

    The only way the youth will ever bike to school in mass is if there is a network of physically-separated bikeways throughout the city.

    It’s a shame that so many of them will develop health and economic problems as a direct result of their dependence on car culture. They won’t even have known that there was an other way.

  • Dave Snyder

    @taomom: it’s not so simple. Going to a complete neighborhood school system would make it easier for kids to walk and bike to school, but it could be a social disaster. Schools in rich neighborhoods would do well, while parents of children in poor neighborhoods would have no recourse to send their kid to a quality school. The SFUSD is the highest performing urban school district in the state, according to test scores, but its african american and latino schoolkids are among the worst performing. The existing policies have helped to close that performance gap, which is good news, but it’s still appalling. If we want neighborhood schools badly enough for environmental reasons — and we might; those are good reasons — we have to figure out how to bolster the schools in poor neighborhoods on the east side. And that’s no easy task. You can’t have one conversation without having the other.

  • Dave,

    I do appreciate the complexities. But I have volunteered at my local middle school and see no benefit in busing in high poverty African American and Hispanic kids into a white middle class neighborhood just so they can go to school with a student body that is 90% African American and Hispanic high poverty kids. Socially, what is the benefit? Academically, what is the benefit? You say existing policies have helped close the gap. I assert that this is untrue. The education these kids are getting is so below what they need that the charge of criminal negligence is not unfounded. And this is not because I believe the teachers to be odious or incompetent–they are not. The administrative leadership, however, is appalling. The only schools that seem to be addressing the needs of high poverty kids adequately in San Francisco are the KIPP schools and they have located themselves in the communities that need them–the Western Addition and Bayview.

    I would say create neighborhood schools where 30% of the slots are open to out-of-walking distance kids. Then fund the schools in the high poverty areas at double the other areas. Make the other areas fund raise to close the gap. (They would do it.)

    The real answer, of course, is diverse, integrated, functional, working neighborhoods and communities. All the gerrymandering we do with schools is just a band-aid. We use our children as pawns because we adults don’t want to do the real work of creating healthy communities.

  • Gillian Gillett

    From San Francisco Unified’s Ad Hoc Committee on Student Assignment, September 14, 2009:

    “The current student assignment plan has not met SFUSD’s longtime desegregation goals of reducing racial isolation and improving educational opportunities and outcomes for all students. A quarter of our schools have more than 60% of a single racial/ethnic group.”

    “Priorities require a multidimensional approach; student assignment is one part.”

    Marin County estimates that 25% of peak traffic volume is parents driving their children to school.

  • Dave Snyder

    @taomom and gillian, thanks for your information and perspective. this is the conversation we need to have. taomom I agree with you: “I would say create neighborhood schools where 30% of the slots are open to out-of-walking distance kids. Then fund the schools in the high poverty areas at double the other areas. Make the other areas fund raise to close the gap.” I’m not sure “they would do it,” but that’s a good answer.

    On the point of closing the achievement gap, according to the deputy director at a recent SPUR forum, in fact, test scores for african american and latino kids showed a greater improvement in the past year than test scores for white and asian kids. School assignment is just a part of the ansewr, and perhaps only a small part.